Russia has started withdrawing troops earlier deployed from the Southern and Western military districts, to conduct exercises in the occupied Crimea and along the borders with Ukraine. The pullback was announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, quoted by Russian media. The Russian defense ministry, its chief said, is completing an inspection of military units which are ordered to return to permanent bases from April 23.
Ukraine, however, shouldn't get too excited about the news
"Completing the exercises" doesn't mean ending the war
First, the withdrawal of troops was announced "in connection with the completion of the exercises." Obviously, it was Ukraine and the new administration in Washington who were the actual targets of the latest showoff maneuvers. After all, for Russia, everything has long been clear with the EU… "Completing the exercises", however, doesn't mean ending the war, let alone the return of the occupied territories.
Secondly, who can tell exactly Russian army's personnel and arms numbers that remained at the sites of the "exercise" once it was declared over? Even before the war, Russia has been secretly upgrading its armament stocks in Crimea, violating agreements on the temporary stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the Ukrainian peninsula.
Thirdly, no one will stop the Kremlin if they decide to get their troops back to the previous position, this time at an even higher pace given some lesson learned from initial drawbacks in logistics. In addition, they have already done their reconnaissance job as to Ukraine's defense capacities, as well as to how the command manages them. Also, no one should dismiss the threats of the so-called "fifth column" within Ukraine (the Russian Orthodox Church, the pro-Russian OPZZh political force, and so on...), which will have more time to pursue their destructive efforts.
And most importantly, "war is a continuation of politics by other means." If Vladimir Putin can proceed with achieving his goals without applying brute force, it would be an even better option for him.
After all, at the moment he has an abstract invitation from Biden, who also seeks to negotiate strategic security. And also he has fear of major European leaders who will put pressure on Ukraine's sovereignty with their "clusters" idea as regards the Minsk deal. Perhaps, for his "will for peace" and "de-escalation", as has already happened multiple times, European partners could try to encourage Putin, say, by easing sanctions. Anxious about the "red lines" announced by Russia's main "peace seeker", they will definitely stick to their current position on Ukraine's NATO membership prospects. Perhaps, they will sabotage this issue even more vigorously. Moreover, who knows, maybe Ukraine could also face an informal embargo on European arms supplies…
Of course, none of these fears have been confirmed with facts yet, but these days it's better to remain a moderate pessimist.
Oleksandr Khara is an analyst with Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies