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Analysis: No Russian withdrawal from Ukraine borders, NATO states

07 May 2014
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows continued Russian troop presence at Belgorod. (CNES 2014, Distribution Astrium Services / Spot Image S.A. / IHS)

NATO has reacted sceptically to Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim on 7 May that Russian troops have been withdrawn from positions along Ukraine's borders.

Speaking following a meeting with Didier Burkhalter, Swiss President and current head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Putin said that "We have withdrawn our forces and they are now not on the Ukrainian border but are carrying out their regular exercises at the test grounds."

Despite Putin claiming that "This can be easily verified using modern intelligence techniques", senior NATO figures stated that have seen no drawdown of Russian forces along Ukraine's border.

"While we've noted Russia's statement so far we haven't seen any - any - indication of troops pulling back", NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated on 8 May. "If we saw visible signs of a meaningful pullback by Russian troops I'd be the first one to welcome it", he said.

Mirroring Rasmussen's comments, US General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), said on 8 May that "in spite of Russian statements, NATO sees no indication of troops being withdrawn from Ukraine's border."

This is not the first time Russia has claimed to have pulled back its troops from Ukraine's borders since the crisis began. On 31 March Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russia had conducted a limited withdrawal of troops. At the time, Russia did withdraw a small mechanised force of around 500 personnel from Kadamovsky, near Rostov, and placed its remaining troops at a slightly lower state of readiness. However, NATO denied that a meaningful withdrawal had taken place. Independent satellite imagery analysis conducted by IHS Jane's in early April confirmed that large numbers of Russian personnel remained deployed close to Ukraine's borders, and indeed that additional build-ups of equipment and aircraft had occurred.

Although not reflecting the most recent withdrawal claims, the latest IHS Jane's imagery analysis of several key build-up sites as they were at the end of April indicates that Russian deployments remain largely unchanged. At Kuzminka and Novorcherkassk (on 26 and 27 April respectively), no change in deployed forces can be seen. Slight changes were detected at Belgorod (on 24 April), with the continued presence of a large ground force, although the helicopters attached to the site appear to have been withdrawn - possibly deployed elsewhere, or withdrawn to take part in the 9 May Victory Day parade in Moscow. Similarly the helicopter force at Primorsko-Akhtarsk (on 27 April) appears to have been withdrawn, however the additional deployment of MiG-31 'Foxhound' interceptors and Sukhoi Su-24 'Fencer' fighter bomber aircraft was identified at the air base by IHS Jane's .

At the same time as his claim of Russian troop withdrawal, Putin called for separatists in East Ukraine to suspend their planned 11 May referendum on independence. However, on 8 May the separatists are understood to have rejected Putin's call, stating that the referendum will go ahead as planned.

ANALYSIS

Putin's statements appear to be a slight climb-down in Russia's position vis-à-vis Ukraine. However, without any overt indications that a withdrawal of personnel has actually taken place, it is likely that his comments are intended largely for his domestic audience - to whom he generally seeks to appear as a firm yet also conciliatory and reasonable international statesman.

Both the Primorsko-Akhtarsk and Novocherkassk bases regularly function as training sites for the Russian military, as do several other Russian bases close to Ukraine where recent military activity has been detected. As such Putin's comments on a troop withdrawal may not be an outright lie, although they arguably belie much of the truth of the situation.

In some respects the widespread seizure of government buildings in East Ukraine and the general degradation of Kiev's control of the region mirrors that seen in West Ukraine before the toppling of Victor Yanukovych in February. However, while protestors in East Ukraine were largely unarmed, the movement in East Ukraine has been conducted by heavily armed personnel.

The level of violence in east Ukraine has escalated significantly since Ukrainian troops began a concerted offensive against pro-Russian positions at the beginning of May. Although Ukrainian forces appear to have made progress, losses have been suffered on both sides. Most notably, three Ukraine Army Aviation Mil Mi-24 'Hind' combat helicopters have been shot down by pro-Russian forces.

Slavyansk in the Donetsk region of East Ukraine has emerged as the key centre for fighting between the Ukraine armed forces and pro-Russian separatists. The town has also seen the emergence of the heaviest weaponry seen carried by the separatists, with two of the downed Mi-24 known to have been hit by man portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and the third by heavy machine gun fire, while the Ukraine Ministry of Defence stated on 7 May that K111 Fagot (AT-4 'Spigot') anti-tank missiles were appearing at separatist roadblocks around Slavyansk.

For Kiev, the presence of heavily armed opposition personnel in East Ukraine and the failure of their efforts to counter the separatists with softer methods has limited their freedom of response to direct military means. Although the presence of Russian troops along Ukraine's borders had previously limited Kiev's response in East Ukraine, their hand has largely been forced into either inaction or a firm military response.

In choosing to deploy the Ukraine Armed Forces in a concerted way against the separatists, Kiev will eventually force Russia into either directly intervening in the conflict or standing back. This is a dangerous path for Ukraine to follow, and maintaining strict rules of engagement, proportionality and avoiding civilian causalities will be vital if Kiev is to avoid formal Russian intervention into East Ukraine.

Objectively there appears little of strategic, rather than emotional, value for Russia in East Ukraine, while the potential cost of deploying Russian forces openly into East Ukraine appears high. An end result of a weaker, devolved and federalised Ukraine would appear to best suit Russia's strategic interests, and it appears likely that is the end result to which Putin is aiming. However, should the conflict continue to escalate or if any major incidents of mass civilian casualties in East Ukraine at the hands of the Ukraine Armed Forces occur, it could become difficult for Russia to not openly intervene in what would effectively amount to a civil war on its doorstep.

Although events may intercede beforehand, it will likely be the outcome and reaction to the referendum in East Ukraine on 11 May and the wider Ukrainian presidential election on 25 May that will be key in either deflating or exacerbating the current crisis. Ultimately either some form of political accommodation will need to be reached between all the parties involved, or Ukraine may eventually be added to the lengthy list of 'frozen-conflicts' between the former Soviet republics, as Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, or Transnistria have been before it.



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