For weeks Kiev officials and many corners of Western media and the Washington national security establishment have hyped the Russian troop build-up in regions of Russia that are within 400km of Ukraine's border, accusing the Kremlin of planning an invasion of Donbass sometime in January. This month started, for example, with The Washington Post citing US intelligence to claim this would involve a whopping 175,000 Russian troops mustered near the border.
But like with prior similar instances (such as failed predictions last spring that never materialized), it's looking like the opposite is set to happen, with on Saturday Reuters reporting a draw down of at least 10,000 troops back to their permanent bases. It's being widely perceived as the clearest sign yet that the "invasion" being talked about for the past nearly two months is not going to happen. Maybe we could chalk it up to a "Christmas miracle" - or perhaps from the start it was all about Putin using the maneuvers to get what he's wanted all along: security and legal guarantees from NATO pledging no more Eastward expansion. And Putin got his talks, which are planned for next month, likely in Geneva.
"A stage of combat coordination of divisions, combat crews, squads at motorized units... has been completed. More than 10,000 military servicemen... will march to their permanent deployment from the territory of the combined arms' area of drills," the Russian army announced this weekend, according to Interfax. The Kremlin has been describing extra troop movements as "drills" and "training exercises" throughout the heightened standoff.
The defense ministry described this as the conclusion of large-scale drills which took place among Southern Military District forces, in regions that included Crimea, Rostov, and Krasnodar - and additionally in Stavropol, Astrakhan, and some in North Caucasus republics. "The defense ministry said the troops were returning to their permanent bases and that stand-by units would be readied for the New Year's holidays," European media reports indicated further.
There are additional signs that de-escalation is in the air, as we reported on Christmas Day based on Reuters that according to a German government source, senior German and Russian government officials agreed to a rare in-person meeting next month in an effort to ease political tensions over Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's foreign policy adviser Jens Ploetner and Russia's Ukraine negotiator Dmitry Kozak agreed to meet after a lengthy phone conversation on Thursday.
The Reuters sources added that "Berlin doubts more than Washington whether Russia actually wants to attack Ukraine" and is keen to de-escalate tensions. This much should have been obvious the whole time, in what's been largely a manufactured crisis which Western media was eager to hype, also as the Pentagon repeatedly demanded that Moscow explain the presence of Russian troops... on Russia's own soil.
Meanwhile, on Sunday Anadolu Agency is reporting that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is convening a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on January 12. The Russian draw down of 10,000 troops from near the Ukraine border region is perhaps a Kremlin good faith action to ensure the continued momentum of the recent flurry of diplomatic activity geared toward deconfliction. Russia's TASS news agency details as follows:
The source noted that NATO was in talks with Russia on this issue. Earlier, the NATO press service said that on January 12-13, Brussels would host a meeting of the NATO Military Committee at the level of the Chiefs of Defense of the member states.
On Tuesday, Stoltenberg stated that NATO offered Moscow to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in early 2022 to address the developments in Ukraine. Meanwhile, he emphasized that NATO would never compromise on Ukraine’s right to choose its own path and apply for joining the alliance as well as on the right of NATO states to defend their allies.
Likely none of this is still to satisfy Ukraine's leaders or pro-Kiev media, which is already suggesting any limited draw down is but a ruse...
#Russia announces withdrawal of 10K troops from Crimea and Ukrainian border. What about 112K troops that remain near #Ukraine? | EMPR https://t.co/Fu6LNOGOXg #russiaukrainewar pic.twitter.com/kCT9L9gx9r— Euromaidan PR (@EuromaidanPR) December 25, 2021
Of course, this current chapter of the rise in Russia-Ukraine tensions, which drew vague threats issued from President Biden two weeks ago, is far from closed. President Putin in his latest weekend comments said that if NATO and the US didn't agree to the required security guarantees halting further NATO expansion near Russia, then the Kremlin has a range of "options" in terms of a serious response.
"It may vary," he said in an interview with state sources. "It will depend on the proposals that our military experts will make to me." He said that while he remains hopeful of a peaceful and positive resolution, Russia will not accept anything that stops short of reaching "a legally binding outcome of diplomatic talks on the documents," he said referencing last week's draft proposals submitted to Brussels and Washington. "That’s what we will strive for."
But without doubt the situation is still dangerous, given that at any moment a provocation on the ground could unravel any positive traction toward an agreement. Both sides have been busy over the past week accusing the other of allowing mercenaries to pour into war-torn Eastern Ukraine, complete with warnings over 'false flag' scenarios.