Defense Department wary of Russian claim of troop withdrawal from Ukraine border

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Defense Department wary of Russian claim of troop withdrawal from Ukraine border

The Pentagon is taking a wait-and-see approach to Russia’s Thursday claim that it will withdraw some 100,000 troops massed in recent weeks along the Ukrainian border, while the defense spokesman said there have been no new high-level calls between the Department of Defense and Ukraine to discuss the threat.

The potential crisis situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border began in late March when a ceasefire in the restive Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine was feared broken. Then, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two were injured by Russian-backed separatists. In the ensuing weeks, Russia began a buildup of military forces along the Ukrainian border and in occupied Crimea, claiming the movements were part of military exercises. High-level phone calls by U.S. officials, including by President Joe Biden to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley to their Russian counterparts, appeared to yield little results. On Thursday, Russia announced it would start withdrawing those forces.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the Washington Examiner Friday.

“We've seen the Russian comments about how they're ending the exercises, and they're going to redeploy,” he added. “It's too soon to tell with any specificity right now, Friday afternoon, how much we can take that at face value.” [Taking Russian statements at face value would always be unwise. Even the Russian statements of last week say nothing about, among other things, the Russian troops inside Ukraine, the on-going military build-up in Crimea, the Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov and parts of the Black Sea. No sigh of relief is merited. Indeed, Russia has closed three more sections of the Black Sea near Crimea for six months of “training exercises”. This is in addition to Russia’s closing off the southern approaches to the Kerch Strait to foreign navies and foreign governments through October – including Ukraine that has every right to access these waters. “Withdrawal” – Hello? RAM]

The troop movements led U.S. European Command to raise its crisis level and worried allies on the eastern flank of NATO, who had not seen such a large number of Russian troops since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and fomented a frozen conflict in Donetsk. [“Frozen conflict” is such a misuse of words – Russia’s war against Ukraine continues and people are dying. RAM]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the Russian announcement in a tweet Thursday.

“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension. Flag of Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas,” the tweet read. “Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support.” [Too much said, too soon. I would think a rule would be never to respond when all you have are Russian words. Russian words too often have no relation to Russian actions. Wait for actions before saying anything. RAM]

The United States began providing lethal aid to Ukraine under the Trump administration and has continued to repeat stalwart support for Ukraine sovereignty but has made no military promises while the Black Sea country pleads for NATO entry. [U.S. words are nice but where’s the beef? Wait too long and genuine support could be too late. RAM]

“We continue to call on Russia to cease their provocations, to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to not contribute to activities that only make the instability along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea less stable,” Kirby said.

The spokesman added that he was not aware of any further high-level conversations between the DOD and Ukraine about the tense situation with Russia.

 

The original article was published by Abraham Mahshie, Defense Reporter, in the Washington Examiner. The parenthetical comments in bold are Mr. McConnell's and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and/or FOUN.