On Wednesday, Belarus’ foreign minister said “not a single” Russian soldier or piece of military equipment would remain in its territory after joint military drills conclude, while the Russian Ministry of Defense released video showing military equipment crossing the bridge from Crimea into Russia.
This all comes a day after Russia announced that some troops would be returning to their home bases after completing exercises – but President Joe Biden said the US had not yet verified any drawdown of the 150,000 Russian troops amassed near Ukraine’s borders.
How significant are the latest developments?
Let’s start with what we know. The statement given on Tuesday by Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson, was very short on specifics. Troops of Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts, he said, had begun loading up their gear to return to their bases, but gave few specifics about where those units had been exercising, what their home stations are, or how many troops in total were heading home.
What’s more, we know from Ministry of Defense news releases that exercises in Belarus involve a significant number of troops from around the Russian Federation, including units based in Russia’s Eastern Military District – several time zones east of European Russia, a massive region bounded at its eastern edge by the Pacific Ocean.
Russia is a massive country spanning 11 time zones; its military divides the country into five administrative territories: the Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Districts and the Northern Fleet.
Troops leaving exercises in Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – were technically exercising inside Russia’s Southern Military District. Troops of the Southern Military District could potentially be returning to bases in the north Caucasus or Rostov oblast.
Tuesday’s statements, then, gives us very little official clue about how significant this move is: It could easily be a rotation – with fresh troops falling in – or a gradual drawdown after exercises. And Konashenkov made it clear that Russia’s current exercises at sea have a fairly global sweep, taking place in “operationally important areas of the world’s oceans” and in the waters adjacent to the territory of Russia.
There are things to watch out for in the coming days. Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko are set to meet this week, and we may get some hint on when the exercises in Belarus will conclude – and when Russian soldiers there will go home.
Asked about whether a decision on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus would be made during that meeting, Kremlin spokesperson Peskov said: “Let’s not jump ahead. Let’s wait for the meeting.”
In the meantime, some Western officials were skeptical of the Russian troop announcement and said there had been no proof that a de-escalation of the crisis is on the cards.
“The signs coming from Moscow about willingness to continue to engage in diplomatic efforts … gives some reason for cautious optimism. But we will, of course, follow very closely what’s happening on the ground and whether this is reflected in some real de-escalation of the Russian military build-up in around Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday.