On the one hand Russian media is telling Russians that Russian troops will leave Belarus when exercises there end on Feb., 20, coinciding with the end of the Winter Olympics, and also sends out videos of troops supposedly being pulled back. OTOH, US officials declared based on reported satellite evidence that 7,000 more troops have gone to “the Ukrainian border” with a chance of Russia invading Ukraine very high, as US personnel are removed, and the US embassy is moved from Kyiv to L’viv in far western Ukraine. I also note that previously Russian media was blasting away about US troops in Ukraine and threats to Belarus and Russia. US advisers were removed last weekend, and that coincided with the pivot to peaceful sounding media in Russia, although much of this is also tied to ongoing focus on the Winter Olympics, where the Russians have generally been doing very well. Can any sense be made of these apparent contradictions? Maybe
The video of Russian troops being withdrawn were shown crossing the bridge Putin has had built connecting Crimea with Russia proper, so not quite on the Ukrainian border and not in Belarus, but also emphasixing Russian intention to hang on to Crimea, with the newly built bridge connecting it to Russia peoper highlighted.
I do think that given how loudly it has been broadcast to the Russian people, Russian troops will largely be withdrawn from Belarus when the exercises end on Feb. 20. They posed the greatest threat to Kyiv itself, if there were to be an invasion, with Kyiv not too far from the Balarusan border. But while pulling back troops from Belarus may make Kyiv a bit more secure, it in fact does not remove the threat of a possible invasion . There are about 159,000 Russian troops somewhere near the Ukrainian border supposedly, with where the new 7000 went not clear. But there are only about 35,000 Russian troops in Belarus for the exercises. So they could be withdrawn completely and there would still be well over 100,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, with the Russia-Ukraine border much longer than the Belarus-Ukraine one, even if the latter is nearer Kyiv.
David Ignatius has written that “it is unclear what Putin’s endgame is,” and I fully agree. I do not know. He has made many demands, while always stating he was not going to invade. Some of those demands always looked out of the question, such as pulling troops and weapons out of former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact members now in NATO. But his ongoing demand about keeping Ukraine out of NATO remains on the table, and there remains the ongoing matter of the status of the separatist republics in Donbas. I do not know what he will accept to not engage in some sort of military action later with the troops still near Ukraine, even after he pulls out of Belarus, if he does.
Zelensky ran on having a referendum on joining NATO. But without resolution of the Donbas republics issue, he cannot have that in a serious way. And he has recently said that “joining NATO may be just a dream.” But that may not satisfy Putin.
As for the republics themselves, the lower Duma has passed a bill recognizing them as independent states, and has urged Putin to do it, as he has in the past for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transniestria, although almost nobody else recognized any of those. He has held back so far on recognizing Lunansk and Donetsk. But perhaps doing that and bolstering them more, with perhaps helping them increase their territories, along with other agreements on types and placements of various arms in eastern Europe. But, again, I do not know what Putin really wants, or maybe we know what he wants, a resurrection of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. But that is not going to happen. So, we are back to how much of what he wants will he be willing to take if he can get it to really pull back, not just from the exercises in Belarus. To that, I do not know the answer.