Despite satellite imagery from just a few days ago, that showed more Russian armored vehicles, mobile rocket artillery systems, and advanced short-range ballistic missile batteries being moved near the border with Ukraine, Russia announced that 10,000 troops were redeploying from the border to their bases after “month-long drills” near Ukraine, Interfax news agency reported on Saturday, citing the Russian military.

While there have been months of tension in Ukraine with fears that Russia will invade the country again after seizing the Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent fighting in the Donbas region with Russian-backed separatists, the announcement of 10,000 troops leaving the region is just a small fraction of the 100,000 troops reportedly along the border. 

Russia had deployed thousands of troops to the north, east, and south of Ukraine which led to speculation in Kyiv and Western capitals that Moscow was planning to invade Ukrainian territory again.

Side-by-side photos comparing an area outside of Ukraine on October 7 and on December 13 showing the influx of Russian troops and armored vehicles. Maxar Technologies photo

“In the troops of the Southern Military District, the stage of combat coordination of squads, crews, and crews in motorized rifle formations, military units of combat arms and special forces has come to an end,” the Russian military said in a statement.

However, recent satellite images that were released just before Christmas paint a different picture. Images from Maxar Technologies show further Russian buildup of armored formations, supporting artillery, and enough logistical supplies for Russian troops to make a quick invasion into Ukraine if so ordered. So this withdrawal of troops may just represent a rotation of some combat units that will be replaced by others.

A senior  Biden administration official, speaking to the media on the condition of anonymity, was quoted by Politico and said if Russian forces move into Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies “are prepared to impose severe costs that will damage Russia’s economy and bring about exactly what [Russia] says it does not want — more NATO capabilities, not less, closer to Russia, not further away.”

If the Russians did invade Ukrainian territory, the U.S. would “increase support for Ukraine’s ability to defend its own territory and also to reassure our NATO partners and allies by changes in our force posture in frontline states,” the U.S. official said. “All of that planning is well underway on our side and we’re ready to act if and when it’s needed.”

Russia wants a Ukraine that is a buffer to the West but instead, Ukraine has been moving further and further toward the West. They want to become part of NATO which President Vladimir Putin has said is a red line. 

And despite the Russian annexation of Crimea, and their further destabilizing efforts in the Donbas region, they continue with their rhetoric against the West and specifically NATO. Earlier last week, Putin warned the West that Russia could take “military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps,” if NATO didn’t end its military training mission in Ukraine and stop equipping the Ukrainian military.

He continued that line just two days later. “It was the United States that came with its missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” he said on Thursday. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now,” Putin added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy conducted a video call with 20 U.S. members of Congress on Friday, expressing the concern that his government has with the Russian troop buildup around Ukraine and the continuing violence in the Donbas where an estimated 13,000 people have died in the fighting between Ukraine’s troops and Russian-backed separatists, including members of the Wagner Group, which Russia denies. 

“Now, more than ever, it is not words that matter, but decisive actions,” Zelensky was quoted as saying, urging the U.S. to mediate in a peaceful settlement. “My goal is to stop the bloodshed in the east of Ukraine. It’s impossible to imagine security in Europe without ending the war in Donbas.”

Featured photo of U.S. and Ukrainian Special Operations troops training together. DVIDS photo