Today was supposed to be the day, right? Everyone seemed positive that February 16th was the worst-kept secret in the international media, supposedly the target date for Russian troops to swarm over the border into Ukraine, potentially sparking a new world war. But when I turned on the news this morning it was already one o’clock in the afternoon in Kyiv and there still wasn’t an invasion taking place. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, but rather than some sort of false flag attack kicking off, Russia claimed for the second straight day that more troops and military hardware are being withdrawn. Of course, that’s what Putin said yesterday, too.
Russia said Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases, adding to glimmers of hope that the Kremlin may not be planning to invade Ukraine imminently, though it gave no details on the pullback.
The announcement came a day after Russia’s foreign minister indicated the country was ready to keep talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis — changing the tenor after weeks of rising tensions. Still, Western officials continued to warn that an invasion could come at any moment and said some forces and military hardware were moving toward the border, muddying the picture.
Are there Russian troops leaving the border region? Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by “leaving.” NATO analysts have confirmed that there is definitely some limited troop “movement” taking place, but there’s only so much that can be inferred from that. They might be heading home or they might be heading for a different spot along the border to merge with other units. For that matter, some of them may still just be participating in the ongoing military exercises that Putin has said won’t conclude until the weekend. But what they don’t seem to be doing is attacking or crossing the border. At least not yet.
Keep in mind what a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Monday. “February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired.” Well, it’s now February 16th and at least part of that statement is correct so far. There hasn’t been a shot fired in anger that we know of.
Meanwhile, the White House still hasn’t verified the first alleged pullback.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that he welcomed a security dialogue with the West, and his military reported pulling back some of its troops near Ukraine. But U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. had not verified Russia’s claim and that an invasion was still a distinct possibility.
I get the sense that Joe Biden is engaging in this daily ritual of warning of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine for personal reasons more than any intelligence-driven conclusions that his Pentagon advisers are giving him. Why? While this is purely speculation, it feels like Biden dreads the possibility of seeing Putin actually go ahead with the invasion while he’s left flat-footed, looking like he was totally out of the loop as he was during the withdrawal from Kabul. Unfortunately, this course of action leaves him open to Putin’s ongoing charges that Washington is the source of all of the drumbeats for war and for overreacting.
As far as Vladimir Putin goes, at the risk of reading too much into this, he seems to be fully enjoying all of the international attention and his ability to make the United States and NATO keep second-guessing his every move. While I still don’t believe we can definitively rule out some sort of incursion in the coming days, Putin may have calculated the long-term costs of a full invasion and found them to be too high. So now he’s playing up the situation for all of the political leverage he can gain.