On February 16, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced some troops would be returning to their permanent bases, having completed recent exercises near Ukraine’s borders.
“The units of the Southern Military District that have completed accomplishing their tasks as part of scheduled tactical exercises at combined arms practice ranges on the Crimean Peninsula have begun returning to their permanent bases,” Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted a Defense Ministry press service representative as saying.
“The personnel of battalion tactical groups have conducted marches to the areas of railway stations, where operations to load combat equipment on special platforms have been organized.”
On Twitter, the ministry released video of tanks and other military equipment being loaded on trains.
Is it an actual drawdown?
Not according to Western intelligence agencies and various independent OSINT (open source intelligence) analysts. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening.
First, some of the units that the Defense Ministry says were training in the Crimean Peninsula, which is illegally occupied by Russia, have permanent bases that are still near the Ukrainian border. For example, elements of the 1st Tank army, seen in a video purportedly returning home, are based near the Russian city of Belgorod, roughly 30km from Ukraine border.
Moreover, the removal of units from Crimea is not necessarily a sign that Russia is standing down, given that a major offensive is more likely along the northern border of Ukraine, closer to the capital of Kyiv.
Reuters cited a senior White House official as saying there is reason to believe Russia increased its military presence along the border by 7,000 troops. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed the issue at a joint press conference held at NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 17.
“The Russians say they are withdrawing some of those forces, now that exercises are complete,” Austin said. “But we don't see that. Quite to the contrary, we see them add to the more than 150,000 troops that they already have arrayed along that border.”
Russia also built a military pontoon bridge across the Pripyat river in Belarus at a location only 8km from Ukraine. It is not known why the bridge was built, and it was later dismantled.
Pro-Russian forces have stepped up shelling in occupied Donbas.
On February 17, 47 ceasefire violations by Russian-backed forces in Donbas were recorded along the line of contact between the two sides. A kindergarten in the town of Stanytsya Luhanska was hit by the shelling while children were present.
No students were harmed, but two teachers reported concussions. Thirty-two shells reportedly hit the city, which is located within an area controlled by Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Russia and the United States exchanged heated words over the mounting crisis during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, on which both nations have a permanent seat.
Russia has accused the U.S. of “whipping up tensions” regarding Ukraine, and the Kremlin denies any plans to invade the country.