Nearly 80,000 Russian troops are reportedly still gathered along the Russian border with Ukraine this week, despite Russian claims they would withdraw by May 1.
At the peak of Russia’s recent Ukrainian border deployment, Josep Borrell, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said an estimated 100,000 Russian troops were mobilized along the border. Senior Defense Department officials told the New York Times on Wednesday that only a few thousand of those Russian troops actually left the Ukrainian border.
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, who previously commanded U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe and now serves as NATO’s special operations adviser to Ukraine, said, “[Russia has] retained a rather lethal force in the region and have only pulled back some forces.”
The rapid mass mobilization of Russian troops in March and April raised security concerns for Ukraine, as well as across Europe and with U.S. forces stationed in Europe. As Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoygu announced the withdrawal of those mobilized Russian troops, he claimed the troops were only mobilized as part of a “surprise check” of their readiness to rapidly deploy.
Senior defense department officials who spoke with the New York Times said that while some Russian troops did leave the border area, many of those units left their trucks and armored vehicles behind, signaling they could rapidly return if ordered to do so.
Respass said the decision to leave behind their military vehicles “tells me they may want to come back later when timing and circumstances are more advantageous to Russia.”
Administration officials further told the New York Times they are taking the continued presence of around 80,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s border as a message that Russia could overmatch an ongoing U.S.-led multinational training drill, known as Defender Europe, featuring 28,000 troops from the U.S. and 25 other countries. The war games are taking place along the Balkans and Black Sea Region, near Ukraine and Russia. NATO forces are also set to take part in another set of war games, known as Steadfast Defender 21, in Romania and Portugal.
The continued Russian troop presence could also serve to dissuade a Ukrainian bid to join NATO.
“The big NATO exercise almost certainly has influenced that Russian decision to maintain a significant troop presence on the Russian-Ukrainian border,” James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former NATO commander, told the New York Times. “The message Vladimir Putin seeks to send is simple: Ukraine should not even think about a NATO membership. Nor should NATO offer one. Any move in that direction will lead to a Russian intervention.”
The ongoing mass troop buildup by Russia, along with the ongoing NATO drills in eastern Europe could raise the risk that an accident could escalate into a worse crisis.
“For all of the deliberative strategy, there is a standing risk of things going wrong, signals being misinterpreted,” Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund, told the New York Times. “An aircraft could be shot down. Something could happen.”