Russia May Actually be Pulling Away From Ukraine, but Not for Ukraine's Sake

Russia appears to be making good on its promise to pull back troops from three cities bordering Ukraine, a move that could have more to do with appeasing China than anything else. 

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NATO representatives are challenging Russia to make good on its promise to pull back troops from three cities bordering Ukraine, saying they can't yet determine whether or not there has been a reduction in the 40,000 troops stationed by the neighboring country. On Tuesday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu dared Russia to "prove that they are doing what they are saying."

As of this morning, it seems they might be. Sort of:

We suppose 6 miles technically counts as a withdrawal. Russia's show of force is rendered slightly ridiculous when considering the state of Ukraine's army. The Associated Press reports:

Ukraine's military is facing its worst crisis ever with a navy that has lost two-thirds of its vessels, an army desperate for basic equipment and a defense ministry that has taken to hustling 50-cent donations that people can make with mobile phone text messages. It has raised over $1 million so far that way — enough to buy one interceptor missile on a U.S. Navy warship — but military officials are thrilled. "We'll use the money to buy the things we lack, like bulletproof helmets and medical supplies," said Bogdan Buta, Ukraine's deputy defense minister.

Sloviansk. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Kiev shouldn't expect any relief from its Western supporters, who are unwilling to provide the country with arms for fear of stoking more violent unrest in the region.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin's intention to pull troops away from the border has been seen as an effort to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine. This may well be the case, but according to the New York Times, Putin's signal of friendship could be pointed East. As leaders in the EU and U.S. continue to slam Russia with increasingly harsh (if ultimately ineffective) sanctions, the Kremlin is hoping China will emerge as a viable new trade partner. The Times explains:

Russia needs new markets because it is hugely dependent on commodity exports, earning some 67 percent of its export income from oil and gas alone. Financing from China would also help offset reluctance by Western banks to extend new loans, given the threat of sanctions. “There will be a natural gas agreement, which is very important not for the agreement itself, but because it will open the road for further, much bigger agreements in natural gas and other raw materials,” [China expert Vasily] Kashin said.

That would explain why top Russian officials aren't all that interested in softening their anti-Western rhetoric. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Bloomberg reporters on Monday that "we are slowly but surely moving toward a second Cold War," adding that his country hasn't “responded to [sanctions] harshly, although we could do something unpleasant or offensive to those countries that are introducing these sanctions.” Which doesn't exactly sound like the extension of an olive branch towards the U.S. or the EU. 

Meanwhile, the United Nations is reporting that 10,000 Ukrainians have been displaced in the country since the unrest began, and the eastern city of Sloviansk saw major damage as clashes between separatists and government forces continue. Through it all, Kiev is planning to move forward with May 25 elections to replace the interim government that stepped in for ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and his cabinet. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.