How should Russia’s pullback from Ukraine border be interpreted?

As Moscow TV showed Russian equipment moving back for a second day, the Ukraine crisis consequences are still playing out

A Ukrainian service member unpacks Javelin anti-tank missiles, delivered by plane as part of the US military support package. Reuters
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If Russia’s withdrawal of frontline troops signals a de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis then the outcome depends on the diplomacy that unfolds in the days ahead.

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” is a quote from the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, which is familiar to President Vladimir Putin. If the troop reduction does herald a step back from war – and it may still be a feint by Mr Putin – his ultimate aim of demonstrating Russian might while prosecuting demands on the West could be fulfilled.

Russia's defence ministry published video on Wednesday that it said showed a column of tanks and military vehicles leaving annexed Crimea, a day after President Joseph Biden and other western leaders expressed scepticism over reports of a partial pullback of other forces from near Ukraine.

Mr Putin has been able to once again dominate the world stage with military manoeuvres, raising Russia’s profile with world leaders descending on Moscow suing for peace.

“But that's about it,” said retired British brigadier Ben Barry. “He's made Nato more united and also made the neutral countries Sweden and Finland think even more seriously about Nato membership.”

On the other hand the prospect of Ukraine joining Nato now appears distant. The consequences of that have been made very clear to Kiev.

The signals from Ukraine have also suggested that it might accede to the Minsk agreement whereby it essentially cedes eastern provinces to Russian control.

There has been an intense diplomatic effort to avert a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

Belarus also appears firmly under Russian control, with the Kremlin’s battle groups moving freely over another country’s territory. The Russian border has thus been pushed further west, opening up a new, tricky flank for Nato.

Opposition over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into Germany will also dissipate if confrontation is averted. The result of that will be Moscow’s coffers bulging at European energy usage while Ukraine’s finances deplete, with its gas pipeline subsequently underused.

Every war has its unintended consequences, which Mr Putin, like Sun Tzu, fully understands.

Some commentators argue that Germany’s dependence on Nord Stream 2 made it open to Moscow’s demands, sowing disunity among Europe and Nato.

“Certainly, Germany has been damaged the most in terms of their reputation by a very silent and conciliatory approach to Russia,” said retired British colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded UK forces in Afghanistan. “They're the most powerful country in Europe, yet they've been seen to be impotent.

“And France has not fared well either, particularly with President Macron trying to pressure Ukraine into imposing the Minsk agreements – that’s got rings of Munich 1938 and appeasement.”

But there are other unforeseen consequences that Mr Putin would not have wished. Among the European nations, Moscow’s chief European adversary, Britain, has emerged with some credit. The UK’s willingness to send anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and troops to the east has won over Eastern European countries and restored its shaky post-Afghanistan relationship with Washington.

“Britain has definitely shown that it can act strongly and independently of other European countries,” said Col Kemp. “It has gained prestige in Eastern Europe and in the US, particularly in Washington, where there are much more positive feelings about Britain.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to once again dominate the world stage, raising his country's profile. AP

US President Joe Biden has also restored some of the prestige lost from the Afghan calamity, with the added bonus that Ukraine has taken some sting out of the bitter relations between Democrats and Republicans. Both were united against Russia.

Former British battalion commander Hamish de Breton Gordon said it was too early to know which side might have won if no shots were fired.

“I think Putin’s made it much more unlikely that Ukraine will now join Nato, certainly in the short term, so you could say that he's achieved his strategic objective,” he told The National.

He added that the positives for the West was that they now know considerably more about Russia's military capabilities and how to combat them.

Mr de Breton Gordon also suggested that Russia would never have been able to stage its current military posture if oil had remained close to the 2020 price of $20 a barrel.

However, he did warn that the Russian pull-back might still be a feint.

“It’s is a reasonable outcome for everybody but any sign of weakness now might precipitate further action by the Russians, so I don't think it's quite time for journalists to pack up shop and go home, there's still a chance that an invasion might happen.”

Moscow’s belligerence – and growing threat in the Arctic Circle - might well drive Sweden and Finland into Nato. Some analysts believe the Nordic countries might link with Eastern European states and Britain to form a new sub-Nato alliance.

Brig Barry added that European defence spending had increased by a phenomenal 4.8 per cent since the Russian build up in 2021, and the recent episode will certainly lead to similar spending.

There may also have been an undisclosed pact between Russia and the US to avert war, suggests Col Kemp.

“I suspect a secret agreement with President Biden regarding future deployments with less of a US or Nato willingness to deploy forces east,” he said.

To avert nuclear confrontation over the 1962 Cuban missile crises, America secretly agreed with Russia to withdraw its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

“Cleary this war wasn’t going to be so much about space and cyber as it going to be armour and artillery so it may cause people to reconsider if there is a proper war but I suspect this won’t cause a major rethink if this really does de-escalate,” Col Kemp said.

“Putin has flexed his muscles, which plays very well at home, but this deployment has averted Russians’ gaze from their very real domestic problems.”

Updated: February 16, 2022, 9:46 AM