Russia pulls back from military confrontation but tensions with West remain

The announcement follows weeks of tensions with the West over a major Russian military build-up near Ukraine. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON - Russia appears to have stepped back from a major confrontation with the West after the country's top military command announced that the large number of Russian troops concentrated at the border with Ukraine have "fully achieved" their objectives and are being ordered back to their barracks.

"The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defence for the country," said Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

But it is not immediately clear whether the drawdown concerns all the troops gathered at the border or just some of the crack units which moved there recently.

Nor is it obvious that this signifies a relaxation in political tensions with the West.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin - who in a keynote speech to his country's Parliament earlier this week dismissed the West's "bullying" of Russia as comparable to that of "jackals" who "howl" - may still spring new surprises on Friday (April 23), when a meeting of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament could result in the adoption of further hostile military actions.

The build-up of Russian troops began two weeks ago without a formal announcement or explanation from Moscow. But it was considerable: Western intelligence agencies estimate that up to 120,000 Russian soldiers were massed at the border with Ukraine - including all the logistical assets required for an invasion.

Over the last few days, the build-up turned more ominous as units of the Russian navy were ordered to the waters adjacent to Ukraine's coastline, and Russia's top interceptor jets and bombers were stationed at nearby airfields.

Russia's decision to dial down this escalation indicates that this vast mobilisation was largely intended to achieve political objectives.

The government in Moscow clearly wanted to flex its military muscles to warn Nato, the US-led military alliance in Europe, that Russia can launch a snap attack at any time.

Moscow may have also wished to remind Western governments that despite all the political support they are offering Ukraine, the Ukrainians cannot be defended against overwhelming Russian military superiority without the permanent deployment of Western troops on Ukraine's soil, something no Western country is prepared to contemplate.

But above everything else, Mr Putin may have used these ominous troop movements to warn US President Joe Biden and his allies that their continued Russia-bashing carries strategic consequences.

Moscow's frustrations with the West are understandable. In the past few weeks, the Biden administration has slapped fresh sanctions which will make it difficult for the Russian state and companies to borrow from US financial institutions, and the Europeans have threatened to introduce even more financial restrictions.

Russian diplomats have also been expelled from the Czech republic and even Bulgaria, probably the European country most favourably disposed towards Russia, is now embroiled in a dispute with Moscow.

Beyond that, there is the increasingly intemperate language in diplomatic exchanges between Russia and the West, with President Biden recently referring to Vladimir Putin as a "killer", an unprecedented public slight to a fellow head of state.

In this week's keynote address to parliament, President Putin upped the stakes considerably by indicating that he will no longer tolerate this "nasty habit of bullying Russia for any reason or without any reason at all".

"It has become a new sport," a visibly angry Mr Putin told MPs on Wednesday. From now on, he added, Russia will have its own "red line" about tolerating such hostile behaviour.

"Those who organise any provocations threatening our core security interests will regret their deeds more than they regretted anything for a long time," the Russian leader warned.

Mr Putin did not define his red line, telling lawmakers that "we will determine where it is in each specific case". But he did say that "Russia's response will be asymmetrical, quick and tough", a clear hint to the element of surprise and the possibility of the use of force.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the West's "bullying" of Russia as comparable to that of "jackals" who "howl" in a keynote speech to his country's Parliament earlier this week. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Rumours making the rounds in Moscow suggest that the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament may be asked to approve the formal deployment of Russian troops in neighbouring Belarus, where the pro-Russian government is facing a strong protest movement which Mr Putin claims is being sponsored and financed by the West.

But even if this does not happen, there is little doubt that the Russian leader is determined to respond forcefully to any new Western criticism of his country.

"Russia has its own interests, which we will defend in line with the international law," Mr Putin said during Wednesday's address. "If somebody refuses to understand this obvious thing, is reluctant to conduct a dialogue and chooses a selfish and arrogant tone, Russia will always find a way to defend its position."

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