Liberal bloggers are now spinning Barack Obama’s inaction on the Ukraine crisis as an intentional strategy, as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin pulls his troops back from the border with Ukraine. But while Putin may be easing tensions and expressing trust in Ukraine’s democracy, he has still managed to fracture relations between the United States and its European allies.
Russia has stationed 40,000 troops along its shared border with Ukraine, in the Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions. The Russian Defense Ministry says it has “completed the dismantling of field camps and training equipment, the loading of the material and preparation of the hardware for the march, and are now commencing the movement to railway stations and airstrips.”
Russia has not announced how many soldiers will be pulled back, but claims that “all the units” that were involved in “scheduled combat training exercises” along the border “will return to their permanent stations by the beginning of Summer.”
Putin told reporters he was not bending to international pressure, but simply intends to create “benign conditions over the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine, to prevent any possible speculation.”
“We keep our troops wherever we want,” Putin added ominously.
According to RT, Russian generals are angered by the withdrawal order, as their troops never officially set foot on Ukrainian soil (although claims abound that Russian soldiers sneaked across the border to support pro-Russian militias); the generals interpret the command as the international community dictating to Russian troops where they can go within their own nation. Deputy defense minister Anatoly Antonov asked the media, “Could anyone explain me, taking our tanks how many kilometers from the border would be enough for you to say, ‘OK, we are satisfied’? Five kilometers, 10, a hundred?”
Do the Russian generals really believe massing troops along a border is not a provocation? Or is there some other motive for embarrassing Putin?
Sources at NATO and the Pentagon told reporters there was no evidence yet of a troop withdrawal; Putin responded by saying “if the weather is fine, they will see it from space.”
Why is Putin withdrawing now? Some pundits suggest that he’s accomplished what he set out to do; proving that NATO can no longer stop Russia if it wants to expand its borders, sowing discord between NATO members who could not agree on a sanctions regime, and stirring up Soviet-style nationalist support in the motherland. Others blame growing opposition to pro-Russian forces, inspired largely by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest man in Ukraine, who has warned his countrymen that a divided or Russia-dominated Ukraine could lose tons of lucrative business with the West.
Meanwhile, 700 miles away, Russian planes violated Finnish airspace twice on Tuesday. A former member of Putin’s cabinet said earlier this year that Putin aims to eventually reclaim parts of Finland that were under Soviet control. Now that Putin is convinced of NATO’s weakness, such a scheme might possibly be viable.