News broke just several hours before The Weekly’s deadline on April 22 that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had ordered Russian troops to start returning to their permanent bases, seemingly deescalating a situation that heightened tensions with the West over Moscow’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, as well as in Russia-occupied Crimea.
“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” Mr. Shoigu was quoted as saying on April 22 by the RIA news agency. “In this regard, I have decided to complete the inspections in the southern and western military districts,” he said, adding that the troops would return to their bases by May 1.
While the news is certainly positive and a step in the right direction, the danger and threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will not have disappeared once Russian troops do in fact return to their permanent bases. Moreover, Mr. Shoigu’s announcement leaves several important questions yet unanswered. It is not clear if the Russian defense minister’s announcement covers all of the troops involved in the Russian buildup of forces in and around Ukraine, nor did it clarify just how many soldiers were in Crimea to begin with. The Russian Ministry of Defense previously only reported that more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles were in illegally-annexed Crimea.
Mr. Shoigu also said that, while he had ordered Russian troops to return to their permanent bases, he nonetheless ordered that the heavy weapons which have been deployed to western Russia as part of the drills remain in place for another set of massive military exercises planned to take place later this year. With that heavy weaponry left in place, the Russian Ministry of Defense can order soldiers back to the region and quickly re-escalate the situation.
The news also comes after Russia last week announced the closing of large areas of the Black Sea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November. It also limited maritime traffic through the Sea of Azov and vastly reduced the supply of diesel fuel to Ukraine, a move meant to undercut Ukraine’s economy, which is heavily dependent on diesel to power the country’s industrial economy.
While the news was greeted positively by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he rightly took the step on April 21 of signing a law that allows for the conscription of reservists within 24 hours without announcing a mobilization of Ukraine’s military. We continue to believe that the only way for Ukraine to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin is to show him that Ukraine will not back down, that the Ukrainian armed forces stand ready to repel continued Russian aggression and that, whether the Western world actually intends to help defend the country, Ukraine will not let down its guard. Of course, NATO membership would help ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.