Russia said on Wednesday that it had finished military exercises in the occupied territory of Crimea and was withdrawing troops.
The announcement comes a day after Moscow claimed it had returned an unspecified number of soldiers stationed close to the Ukrainian border back to their bases.
“Units of the Southern Military District, having completed their participation in tactical exercises, are moving to their permanent deployment points,” Moscow’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Scenes shown on state television also showed military units, including tanks and artillery, crossing a bridge from Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014 — to the Russian mainland.
Distrust from the West
But observers and Western leaders remain skeptical of Russian claims and have warned that Russia could still invade its southern neighbor.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned at a press conference on Wednesday that “Russia retains the ability of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine,” and expressed skepticism about the mixed messages from Russia.
“What we see is a very strong Russian military presence at the border with Ukraine, but we also see a message from Moscow that they will give diplomacy a chance,” he said.
Stoltenberg also pointed out that the number of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border “continues to increase.” He added that in the past, Russia has moved lots of troops and heavy equipment into an area and then withdrawn the soldiers, but not the equipment, leaving the option of a rapid return open.
The sentiment was mirrored by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday who accused Moscow of sending “conflicting signals.”
“NATO has not yet seen signs of any Russian troop reduction” despite Moscow’s announcements, she said, but added that “We saw signs of hope yesterday… now deeds have to follow those words.”
US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that US intelligence has yet to verify the claims of previous withdrawals.
The UK’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace reiterated the doubt over Russian claims on Wednesday morning, telling Times Radio: “We haven’t seen any evidence at the moment of that withdrawal.”
Russia signals pause on Donbas recognition
Russian news agency RIA cited Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday saying that the recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions would contravene the Minsk agreements.
The Russian parliament on Tuesday voted to ask Putin to recognize the independence of the two Ukrainian regions where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed the vote on Wednesday, saying any recognition of the two regions would be illegal.
Any move to do so by the Kremlin would undermine Russia’s pledged commitment to diplomacy and would “necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners,” Blinken said.
The Kremlin also denied any involvement in a cyberattack that hit websites connected to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and armed forces on Tuesday.
“We do not know anything. As expected, Ukraine continues blaming Russia for everything,” Peskov told reporters.
Investigations into previous cyberattacks targeting Ukrainian infrastructure over the years have repeatedly concluded that Moscow has been behind them.
Troop pullback ‘not really an improvement’
Thomas Wiegold, a journalist specializing in international defense, told DW that the Russian withdrawal amounted to little because the troops in question were already garrisoned near Ukraine.
“Even when those troops are withdrawn, they could be relocated pretty fast, pretty soon,” Wiegold said. “We have seen that troops from Russia’s Far East have been relocated to Belarus and close to Ukraine. If those troops went home a few thousand kilometers, that would make a difference.”
“But, if they are troops based a few hundred kilometers from Ukraine anyway, it’s not really an improvement.”
Despite Putin’s denial that any invasion is planned, Wiegold said Russia could “reserve the right to intervene” to help its citizens. Any Russian decision to recognize the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, he said, could make that prospect more likely.
“If this happens, then of course, Russia considers [itself] to have the not only moral but also legal right to intervene in Ukraine. And this might change things just a bit more for the worse.”
Stefan Meister, head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW that Russia’s announcements of troop withdrawals “is simply a tactical move.”
Russia is seeking to ease some pressure only to apply it again, he said.
“[Russia’s] goal is for Germany and France to put pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk accords on Russian terms after all, and for the Americans to possibly make concessions that they would not otherwise make,” Meister added.
“Russia is not de-escalating, it is just pretending to de-escalate.”
Markets take Putin at his word
Putin said on Tuesday during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Moscow does not “want war in Europe.” He has repeatedly denied having plans to invade.
Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told German newspaper Die Welton Wednesday that: “There will be no escalation in the coming week either, or in the week after that, or in the coming month.”
The news of withdrawals has seen the rouble rally as investors’ fears over possible sanctions are eased.
Wall Street and Asian markets were also up on Wednesday after fears of a conflict in Eastern Europe had triggered heavy losses for several days.