Why Russia Withdrawing Troops Means Very Little
Any Russian announcements of troop withdrawals should be met with skepticism. Against the backdrop of ongoing peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, Russian officials announced they would be decreasing military operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust.” However, Russia’s past military operations in Georgia and Syria indicate that Russian troops are not withdrawing, but rather resupplying and preparing to launch a new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine is not the first example of Russia invading one of its neighbors. In 2008, Russian troops amassed around Georgia’s northern border following the NATO Bucharest Summit. At the summit, NATO officials announced their commitment to adding Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance. As a result, Russian officials sent troops to Georgia’s northern border to support two contested regions—South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On July 30th, Russian officers announced that they would withdraw troops from the border. However, Russian forces invaded eight days later and engaged in a short five-day war. Fighting damaged Tbilisi’s airport and led to the unrecognized breakaway of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Kremlin has also made a point of engaging in proxy wars outside of the Eurasian region; Russia’s military has been active in Syria’s civil war since 2015 and is a staunch supporter of Syria’s authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2017, Putin announced that Russia would partially withdraw troops from the conflict. However, after the U.S. removed its troops from Syria in 2019, Putin eagerly sent his armed forces back into the country.
Considering this track record, Putin will likely remove his troops from northern Ukraine to Belarus to resupply before launching an all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine. Putin has underscored that his main prerogative is liberating the Donbas from the “Neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv and to save Russian speakers. Kremlin officials likely realized that they could not capture Kyiv without devastating their own military, and the withdrawal of troops is an attempt to cover up their failures. A far more narrow and easier mission to occupy the Donbas regions will provide Putin with a tangible victory he can share back home. At the same time, it will pressure leaders in Kyiv to decide how much they want to risk in trying to recapture the areas from a regrouped and resupplied Russian military.