A Russian BMP-2 armored personnel carrier in a Russian military exercise in 2015. Photo by the Russian Ministry of Defense, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
KYIV, Ukraine — On Christmas Day, multiple Western media outlets reported that Russia had removed some 10,000 soldiers from Ukraine’s borders. On social media, many prominent Russia watchers celebrated the move as a welcome sign that Russia may have backed down from its threats to wage a military offensive against Ukraine this winter.
Citing a Bloomberg story titled, “Russia Returns Some Troops to Base After Training Near Ukraine,” Serhii Plokhy, a noted historian and Ukraine expert, tweeted: “With the Russian officials drawing parallels with the Cuban missile crisis, is this ‘the other fellow just blinked’ moment?”
Referencing a similar story by Reuters, Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “Good sign.”
The problem, however, is that the original Western news reports about the Russian troop drawdown were inaccurate, leading to a misinterpretation of Moscow’s intent, according to a report published Tuesday by the Institute for the Study of War.
“Recent media reports about Russia withdrawing 10,000 troops from near Ukraine are inaccurate and primarily a result of misleading Western reporting, not a Russian misinformation campaign,” wrote the report’s authors, George Barros and Mason Clark.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) December 28, 2021
Russia’s Southern Military District announced Dec. 25 that more than 10,000 troops had returned home from exercises located across a broad region of Russia, not only from some areas near Ukraine but also from the Caucasus and the Russian cities of Astrakhan (about 600 miles from Ukraine) and Volgograd (about 220 miles from Ukraine). Those troops also returned from as far away as Armenia and the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all of which are hundreds of miles away from Ukraine.
Moreover, the Russian military announcement cited by many Western news reports did not frame the troop movement as a reduction on force readiness near Ukraine — just the opposite, actually. The Russian Southern Military District announced that its returning units will “maintain high combat readiness” to respond to “the consequences of possible emergencies” during the New Year holiday period.
“Russia likely has not decreased its force posture around Ukraine,” Barros and Clark wrote.
Therefore, based on the language of the Russian military’s Saturday announcement, Moscow was not signaling its intent to defuse the current Ukraine border crisis. In fact, multiple open-source intelligence reports in the intervening days have shown that Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border has continued to proceed.
if you're looking for signs of a Russian drawdown, this is not a good indicator. Russia's military regularly conducts drills of this size and scale especially at the start of seasonal training periods (winter training began on 1 Dec). 1/ https://t.co/5Qj161V5Is
— tom (@tom_bullock_) December 25, 2021
Underscoring the misinformation’s original source, the Institute for the Study of War’s report highlighted a Saturday Reuters story with the headline: “More Than 10,000 Russian Troops Returning to Bases After Drills Near Ukraine — Interfax.”
Some Russia experts were immediately dismissive of the inaccurate news reports. Responding to a news story that misrepresented the original Russian military announcement, Konrad Muzyka, the president of Rochan Consulting, a Polish defense consultancy, tweeted: “This is not what the Russian [Ministry of Defense] said.”
Likewise, Michael Kofman, director of the CNA Corp.’s Russia Center and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute, discounted the notion that Russia was trying to reduce tensions with Ukraine.
Recommend folks read the Southern MD press release instead of English language reposts of Interfax's story. There is no established relationship between this announcement and the forces concerned. The SMD has several things going on at the same time. pic.twitter.com/iP3xlGfyck
— Michael Kofman (@KofmanMichael) December 27, 2021
“Other Western media outlets ran with Reuters’ characterization of the 10,000 troops withdrawing from ‘near Ukraine,’ amplifying an inaccurate perception of Russia recently reducing its force posture near Ukraine,” Barros and Clark wrote.
Moreover, Russia has massed military forces at multiple other locations along Ukraine’s borders, such as at Yelnya, Kursk, near Voronezh, and in Crimea. According to multiple independent news reports and commercial satellite imagery, the military buildup has continued at those other locations.
In short, the Russian danger to Ukraine has been steadily increasing, despite news to the contrary.
“The Kremlin benefits from Western misunderstanding of its activities,” Barros and Clark wrote. “Western reporters, analysts, and observers must scrutinize secondary and primary reports of Russian activities to avoid inadvertently perpetuating misunderstandings about Russian actions.”