Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian forces on the border with Ukraine back to their bases, the Kremlin has announced. It is the third announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal since the buildup on the border started in March, and experts said this time it might actually happen.
Previous withdrawal announcements have not been borne out by developments on the ground, Nato has said. On 28 April Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel, that Russian forces had returned to their places of permanent deployment, and on 7 May Putin said Russia had pulled back from the border.
Nato said after both instances it had not seen evidence of a pullback, and last week the US government published satellite photos that it said showed Russian forces still massed near the Ukrainian border.
On Monday the Kremlin said in a statement on its website that it was pulling back forces from three regions along the Ukrainian border. “In connection with the completion of the routine springtime training phase for troops that involved their deployment to training grounds in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, among others, the president of Russia gave the command to the defence minister to return the troops taking part in the exercises to their home bases,” the Kremlin said.
A Nato officer reportedly said on Monday that it had seen no sign of troop movements. However, Russian defence experts said troops would need at least 24 hours to begin moving. The fact that Russia’s national security council held a special meeting with Putin on Monday also lent weight to the announcement.
“This time it could be actually be true because it’s time to withdraw, it’s time to demobilise the soldiers, it’s time to step down,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst and columnist at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
According to Felgenhauer, the decision is mainly based on the need to send home the one-year conscripts that form the backbone of the Russian army and focus energies on drawing up this year’s class. Ultimately, he said, Putin decided against invading eastern Ukraine due to the risks involved and because the situation of the Kiev government was already tenuous.
“You had to make a decision to go or not to go, and threats of western sanctions were a significant factor,” Felgenhauer said.
Anton Lavrov, an independent analyst who monitors troop movements, said he had not yet seen any troops withdrawing but the test would come on Tuesday. “If they actually go back to home base this will be a big de-escalation because these bases are all far from Ukraine,” he said.
The US satellite photos showed Russian troops at bases 50 miles from the border. Russian forces had been deployed almost to the border itself after the start of Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russia rebels in late April, Felgenhauer and Lavrov said, but soon pulled back to the training grounds slightly further away.
Despite Moscow’s statements that troops had been withdrawn to their home bases, only a few units have returned to their place of permanent deployment, the analysts said.
The Kremlin statement said Putin welcomed the “first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalisation”. Moscow has pushed to have pro-Russia rebels included in national unity talks, but Ukrainian leaders say they will not negotiate with “terrorists”. The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, said on Saturday he would offer amnesty to any rebels who had not committed grave crimes.
Source : theguardian