This was an unexpected bit of news that showed up in our feed this morning, assuming there’s any truth to it. The Russian Defense Ministry has announced that “some” of its troops and military hardware are currently returning to their home base locations away from the Ukrainian border, having completed the training exercises they were allegedly deployed for. That would be in keeping with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing claims that this was all just a massive training maneuver that will be concluded in the next week. Reporters were shown a video of a tank being loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven away, but there was little to no context offered for the video. But it can’t just be that simple, can it?

Some troops in Russia’s military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, Russia’s defence ministry was quoted as saying on Tuesday, a move that could de-escalate frictions between Moscow and the West.

Russia’s Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying that while large-scale drills across the country continued, some units of the Southern and Western military districts have completed their exercises and started returning to base.

Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, prompting fears of an invasion, especially as Moscow’s Feb. 10-20 joint drills with Belarus mean that Ukraine is almost encircled by the Russian military.

This would be an anticlimactic but welcome development if it turned out to be true. But is it? The only evidence we’re seeing thus far amounts to a video that was controlled and released by the Russian Defense Ministry. For all we know, that could have been filmed months or years ago. For that matter, it could be a training video for towtruck drivers. There are still reports of significant troop movements taking place in a variety of Russian provinces. Of course, Putin and his Defense Minister continue to insist that all of that activity is just part of the current round of war games.

And then there’s this.

As far as the idea of Russia starting to withdraw all of its troops goes, not everyone sees it that way. CBS News reports that Russian units and missile launchers have been moved into “attack positions” that threaten Ukraine. Nobody has breached the border yet, but if these estimates are accurate they are certainly poised to do so on short notice.

Russia has moved some long-range artillery and rocket launchers into firing position, threatening Ukraine, according to a U.S. official.

Some Russian units have left their assembly areas — the bumper-to-bumper formations seen in satellite photos — and are beginning to move into “attack positions,” according to the official. This movement marks a change since Sunday, when some of the units had left the assembly areas but had not yet taken what could be viewed as attack positions.

Jake Sullivan is still beating the drum and claiming that Russia now has 80% of the forces in place that would be required for a full-scale invasion. We’re also hearing repeats of the warning that Putin may be planning a false flag attack on Russian citizens or supporters, perhaps in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But if the supposed action is taking place out in that area, how would he justify an immediate drive toward Kyiv originating in Belarus? Of course, that’s probably a silly question. Putin generally doesn’t demonstrate much concern over justifying anything he says or does. (Just ask Alexey Navalny about that.)

Let’s just say for the moment that Russia actually is preparing to wrap up the wargames and send all of the troops back home. What happens next? In case you missed it yesterday, I’ve been toying with the idea that this entire exercise has been a ploy by Putin to gather intelligence, look for leaks in his own military, and gauge the response of his adversaries to an actual invasion. If Putin actually does fully pull back, I don’t think we can take that possibility off the table. This has been a massively expensive operation for Russia and it’s dragged on for a long time. It’s hard to imagine that it was all nothing but a training exercise, right? Of course, the other possibility is that these are just more lies from Moscow and the invasion will start tomorrow as predicted.

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