In a refreshing change of pace, Putin has moved some Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. Although this latest development pulls some forces away, it remains unclear whether or not this will result in a significant change in the tense situation. The reported withdrawal moves a motorized battalion back to its base away from the border region and according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office, the move was first discussed in a telephone conversation between Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This de-escalation is a positive first step according to the U.S. State Department. The United States has been vehement in arguing that Russia needed to remove the influx of troops on Ukraine’s border if the crisis were to be resolved. Furthermore, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the reported troop movements have yet to be verified by the Pentagon. However, Ukrainian sources have indicated that they have seen what they believe is Russian troop movement and have defined it as erratic in nature. Ukraine’s military has indicated that Putin’s intentions may not be entirely clear at this point.
Also discussed in the phone conversation between Merkel and Putin were possible solutions to the disagreements involving Ukraine’s constitution. Russia argues that the constitution must respect ethnic Russian citizens by giving more autonomy to regional governments. However, it is Ukraine’s position that Putin should not be involved in Ukrainian affairs. They state that the reforms that Russia is arguing for would be a de facto surrender of their Eastern and Southern territories.
Although there has been the slightest of easing of tensions in the region, many are quick to point out that the crisis may be far from over.
If Putin pulls back more Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, there is perhaps a greater chance that the crisis will find a diplomatic solution. However, tensions are still high and by some indicators pulling back will not be the choice Putin makes. Also, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev lead a cabinet delegation to Crimea promising reforms and stability to improve the lives of Crimean citizens. The trip was condemned as inflammatory by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry. Furthermore, military analysts acknowledge that a move of a single battalion is, although positive, not very significant. Generally speaking, a battalion is about 500 troops and previous reports have suggested that tens of thousands of Russian troops are mobilized to Ukraine’s border.
In addition, it is unclear whether or not Russia will formally recognize Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election in May. Senior officials have suggested that the election will be unfair and premature given the current situation.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that Russian troops are still positioned in a way that some analysts suggest is indicative of an invasion. The possibility of Russian forces entering Eastern or Southern Ukraine has been of top concern for NATO and the West. Plus, Ukraine worries that the recent troop movements may just be a ploy to try to throw off both the Ukraine and the West. At any rate, Ukrainian officials say that they are as prepared for the worst as they can be.
Although the situation remains highly volatile, with Putin moving some Russian troops back from its Ukrainian border, it appears as though some discussions and diplomatic efforts have been moderately fruitful. This most recent decision pulls the crisis back into the realm of diplomacy which is a welcome change from the past few weeks.
Opinion by Brett Byers-Lane