But the claims are likely a fake-out, according to senior U.S. officials and lawmakers.
“They might be pulling back a little,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast.
But “the Russians are masters of deception. They’ve been doing that all along. We shouldn’t read too much into this,” Moulton said. “We all want peace, but I don’t think the Russians are ready to quit.”
Russia has a long history of saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, Moulton added.
Moscow has claimed before that it is regrouping its forces, only to dilly dally and advance its aggressive military moves against Ukraine, for instance. Just this February, Russia claimed it was pulling back some of its troops near Ukraine’s border. Officials at the time were doubtful about Russia’s intentions.
Indeed, days after Russia made the claims, Russian President Vladimir Putin let loose an all-out assault and invaded Ukraine.
The Biden administration is likely looking at a similar scenario now, warned Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“I don’t” buy it, Gallego told The Daily Beast. “We’re still hearing about artillery and rocket fire.”
“We saw this claim, you know, not too long ago when they also claimed they were backing up prior to the invasion. That ended up not being true,” Gallego added. “So I’m all about definitely trust but verify when it comes to Russians.”
This time around, President Joe Biden has thrown cold water on the claims Russia actually has plans to pull back as well.
“We’ll see. I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are,” Biden said Tuesday. “We’ll see if they follow through with [what] they’ve suggested.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the claims were dubious, noting Tuesday the United States has not seen “real seriousness” from the Russians on this point.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby indicated the whole claim is likely an invention as well. “We’re not ready to buy the argument that this is a Russian withdrawal,” Kirby said in a press briefing.
So far, all signs point to Russia regrouping—not withdrawing, according to the Pentagon. Russia has pulled back 20 percent of its forces from Kyiv to resupply and refuel, but not return home, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Russia’s claim that it is pulling back coincides with negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey, where Russia said it would be withdrawing “to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations.”
I think that Putin is using this as a smokescreen, buying time to regroup.
And while the dubious claims might be part of a show to prod along negotiations, Russia’s not doing a very good job messaging about it. Even close allies of Putin are publicly noting the withdrawal claim is bogus. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Wednesday “we are not making any kind of retreat.”
And in the meantime, Russia hasn’t made indications it is stopping its bombardment in Ukraine. Russia continues to hit targets in eastern Ukraine, local authorities said, and Russian forces continue to bombard the outskirts of Kyiv, according to Reuters.
The future of peace talks is muddy at this hour. Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday the talks hadn’t led to any diplomatic breakthroughs. Ukrainian lawmakers don’t seem to think Russia’s making a good-faith effort to negotiate anything close to peace, though.
“We feel these are not real peace talks at this point,” Anastasia Radina, a Ukrainian MP said in remarks Wednesday at a German Marshall Fund event.
“I think that Putin is using this as a smokescreen, buying time to regroup,” another Ukrainian politician, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, added.
As peace talks stall, chatter has begun to swirl in the halls of Congress that Putin might be using the fake-out withdrawal claim as a way to test the waters to see what Moscow can get away with moving forward.
“I think they’re trying to see what type of reaction that they’re getting internationally from this idea that they’re pulling back and they’re just testing to see what limits they can [cross],” Gallego told The Daily Beast.
Some analysts have suggested Putin might be interested in claiming a pullback from Kyiv and Chernihiv as a way to mask the losses they’ve been facing to domestic audiences, and instead make it seem like Russia is choosing to leave—rather than admit they’re having trouble conquering those cities. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Monday Russian forces are regrouping particularly because they can’t make any advances, according to a Reuters report.
Ukrainians have been resisting across the country and taking up arms and fighting back in the streets for weeks now. And just in recent days some of the patriotic resistance has begun to pay off: The northeastern town of Trostyanets and territories in the Chernihiv region were liberated from Russian troops this week. Ukrainians have also pushed back Russian forces from Irpin, according to the mayor.
Making matters worse for Moscow, Russian troops have been mired with setbacks in their invasion in Ukraine since day one. They have been stalled outside of the Ukrainian capital, waiting to attack and struggling with fuel shortages and sustainment failures, a senior U.S. defense official said.
Part of Putin’s trouble is he can’t seem to get his forces to make a sweep of decisive victories in Ukraine.
Moulton isn’t so sure the fake claim about withdrawal is about sending a message back home to save face, though.
“I suspect that their target audience for the pullback is us and the Ukrainians,” Moulton said, adding it could be about positioning on the international stage. “They’ve got plenty of other propaganda to lie to their own people—about how many young Russian boys have already lost their lives.”