Russia insisted for weeks when massing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders that it had no plans to invade. Then it did. So it’s not surprising that deep skepticism greeted its Tuesday announcement of a scaled-back offensive.
The US – like everyone – is desperate for a de-escalation of Moscow’s onslaught, for humanitarian reasons and because it could ease fears of a spill-over US war with Russia.
But the experience of President Vladimir Putin’s previous lies and propaganda, and of his brutality, clouded the first signs of progress between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators in Turkey. The treacherous path any ceasefire or peace deal would face, first to be implemented and then to become permanent, also tempered optimism in the West and Ukraine.
In the Cold War, the famous US mantra after nuclear arms reduction deals with the Kremlin was “trust but verify.” In this conflict, the approach is exactly the opposite – verify and distrust. The shift reflects the stark suspicion toward the Russian President following his two decades of anti-West leadership. It is also born of revulsion at vicious assaults on innocent civilians – in hospitals, apartment blocks and a theater used as a shelter – over the last month.
The US is back to waging the information war
On the verify part of the equation, the US on Tuesday repeated its pre-invasion tactic of using intelligence capabilities to paint a clear picture of what it believes Russia is actually doing in Ukraine. This is designed to thwart Moscow’s feints and misinformation and is in the service of the wider US goal to deprive Putin of a reward for his aggression, even if a lower intensity war mostly limited to eastern and southern Ukraine would suggest the West’s support for Kyiv is working.
“Nobody should be fooling ourselves by the Kremlin’s now recent claim that it will suddenly just reduce military attacks near Kyiv, or any reports that it’s going to withdraw all its forces,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Tuesday briefing.
There is a strong sense in Washington that while the Russian operation could be pivoting following its bloody failure to Blitzkrieg into Kyiv, the move could simply presage an intensified assault on besieged southern and eastern cities.
In the short-term, Russia could be regrouping for more savage attacks in a more concentrated area. Longer term, there’s no guarantee Putin would ever cede his desire to crush Ukrainian nationhood if he secures a beachhead in the east.
“We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal, and that we all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine,” Kirby told reporters. He said small groups of Russian forces were pulling back from Kyiv. But he added: “We are not prepared to call this a retreat or a withdrawal.”
Still, Kirby also came closer than the US ever has to saying that Putin had already lost the wider war in Ukraine, pointing out the list of major cities he had failed to capture or subdue, as it amped up pressure on the Russian President.
“They wanted Kyiv. They didn’t get it,” Kirby said.
“They also … failed to really take and hold any major population centers. They haven’t taken Kharkiv. They haven’t taken Chernihiv. They haven’t taken Mariupol. And while we assess they took Kherson, that’s back in play right now.”
That record of Russian disappointment pointed to another possible motivation for a glimpse of light in diplomacy: Moscow simply cannot afford to continue the assault on such a wide battlefield against stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Is Russia withdrawing or regrouping?
Despite US suspicion of Russian moves, which were billed as a trust building de-escalation and not a ceasefire, the talks in Turkey did at least offer some optimism that has been elusive since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine more than a month ago. If progress continues, the talks may have laid the foundation for a framework to reduce or end the fighting in the future.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that Russia would “radically at times” reduce military activity around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said enough progress was made during talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations on Tuesday in Istanbul to allow Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to meet. He also said the two sides had agreed to defer a decision on the fate of Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, for 15 years. Such a deal would park one of the most difficult issues in ceasefire talks.
However, it’s also important to understand what is not happening. Any perception that Russia’s war of aggression may be about to end would be highly premature. It is still inflicting a vicious toll on civilians.
On Tuesday, for example, at least 12 people were killed and 33 were injured in a Russian strike on the office of the regional military governor of Ukraine’s southwestern Mykolaiv region, Ukraine’s State Emergency Services said.
And even if Russia regroups in southern and eastern battlefields, that doesn’t mean that Kyiv and other cities would be delivered from the ever present fear of air attacks. More civilian misery would be certain where the war rages. And a de-facto partition of the country, which might now be Putin’s reduced aim, would reward his contempt for international law after he marched into a sovereign, democratic nation – even if it provides a face-saving option at home.
Zelensky warned on Tuesday that his country could not trust the words of a nation seeking his country’s “annihilation.”
“The enemy is still on our territory. They carry on shelling our cities. Mariupol is besieged. Rocket and air attacks are not stopping.”
Russia’s intentions put to the test
The coming days will test whether Russian forces really do step back from Kyiv and Chernihiv. CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen visited the frontline near the Ukrainian capital Tuesday and reported heavy shelling. Such attacks could signal Russian units are covering their retreat. Or they could be scorching earth on the way out. Major rocket and artillery fire was also heard by CNN’s teams in Kyiv overnight into Wednesday, which is hardly consistent with Russian vows to scale back action.
Some Russia skeptics believe the announcement is nothing but Moscow’s spin, designed to detract attention from losses on the battlefield.
“Nothing has changed. Russians are masters of lying deception, and window dressing,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former Ukrainian prime minister, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” Tuesday.
“Russians are out of man power, out of ammunition, they’ve failed to encircle and take over Kyiv,” said Yatsenyuk.
Another possible motivation for the potential Russian strategic shift is to again seek to fracture robust Western unity – one of the many things that appeared to surprise Putin when the invasion began. In theory, hope for a diplomatic opening could make European states less likely to further turn up the heat on sanctions that have blasted the strangled Russian economy.
That may explain why President Joe Biden was quick to get on the line with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom on Tuesday morning as reports began to circulate of progress in the negotiations in Turkey. The allies reaffirmed “their determination to continue raising costs on Russia for its brutal attacks in Ukraine,” according to a White House statement.
A diplomatic deal could be bad – but not as nasty as war
Still, despite skepticism about Russia’s motives, the fact that talks happened at all, and for the first time appeared to yield some progress, is something. Successful diplomacy, even if it delivers a solution that satisfied no one, could save thousands of lives given Putin’s current fearsome assault on civilians. Some security guarantees for Kyiv – potentially from the EU or the permanent members of the UN Security Council – could allow some of the 3.9 million refugees that have fled the country to perhaps return home and rebuild a semblance of their former lives.
So unmoving skepticism of Russia’s motives could snuff out a possible chance to end at least some of the killing in Ukraine. That’s one reason the US and its allies are likely to take their cues from Zelensky in the days ahead.
John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said that Kyiv’s evolving position for future neutrality was interesting, as would be any proof Russia was limiting aggression to eastern Ukraine.
“That’s still bad. But better than what we have today,” Herbst told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, adding that any indication that Russia had stepped back from Putin’s earlier effort to control all of Ukraine and change its government could hint at a way forward.
“Still aggression, still nasty but not as dangerous and not as nasty as their original objectives,” Herbst said.
In a conflict as brutish as this, involving a protagonist as cruel as Putin, that may be the best the world can wish for.