Although Russia claims to have started withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border in the past 24 hours, no proof of this has yet been presented. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said this morning “We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces. And of course, that contradicts the message of diplomatic efforts. What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So, so far, no de-escalation.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense has published video of tanks, self-propelled artillery and other armored vehicles leaving Crimea. However, it was not made clear if the equipment was permanently departing the peninsula or simply being repositioned elsewhere. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken supported the NATO claim, saying the United States has yet to see concrete evidence of a Russian withdrawal in progress.
In Kiev and around the rest of the country, Ukrainians are celebrating Unity Day. The holiday was created by Ukraine’s leader Volodymir Zelenskiy to mark the day US intelligence believes a Russian invasion will begin. Ukrainian flags are flying from nearly all government buildings today, the national anthem was performed in cities and towns at 10 AM and the day is being marked by a number of speeches and rallies. Even though the true intent of the holiday remains unclear to many citizens, Ukrainians appear enthusiastic to take part. The threat of war did not appear to deter them from partaking in holiday events.
Ukraine will enjoy at least one more day of peace it seems.
Statements by the Russian Defense Ministry this morning that some military units from the Southern and Western Military Districts are withdrawing following the conclusion of exercises they were engaged in have been greeted with cautious optimism by the West. There have so far been no indications seen by NATO or the United States that de-escalation is underway. Aside from a handful of units supposedly returning to their home bases, and Russia now openly talking about further rounds of diplomacy, the situation is unchanged. Exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea continue and according to reports from US officials, Russian units close to the border are moving into their forward assembly areas.
We’ve talked about the buildup to hostilities recently and how ambiguity becomes an important tool for Moscow to mask its true intentions. These supposed withdrawals could be underway solely to help create the illusion of Russia choosing use diplomacy as the primary avenue to resolve its security concerns instead of intimidation and force. Or, the pullbacks could be real and in the coming hours and days evidence of this will become clear. Time will tell.
The danger has not passed, and this crisis is far from being resolved. I’ll talk more about other events taking place in the afternoon update.
With discussions over Russia’s security proposals set to start in early January with the United States and NATO, the Kremlin is moving 10,000 troops away from the Ukrainian border. The action is intended to make the Russian position appear less belligerent and signal a willingness to compromise. How much difference the withdrawal of 10,000 Russian troops will make to the military balance in the region remains to be seen. When it comes to a ground force primed to invade Ukraine, either 90k or 100k will be a sufficient enough number. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the end of a series of military drills in the Southern Military District, as well as the subsequent withdrawal of 10,000 troops to their permanent bases. What was not explained in sufficient detail was whether or not the weapons and equipment of those troops was also being withdrawn.
Yesterday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said he will consider a host of options if the West refuses to meet his concerns over NATO expansion to Ukraine. He was not specific, but the intent behind the words was apparent. Putin said Russia’s response would be diverse and and dependent on the proposals Russia’s military leaders submit to him. Putin also repeated the Russian position that NATO membership for Ukraine is a red line he will not allow to be crossed.