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  1. International Politics
16 February 2022

Putin keeps the West guessing

Promises to withdraw troops from Ukraine's border may just be the same old story.

By Stephen Bush

The beginning of the end, or just the end of the beginning? The Russian government has said that military drills in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine, are ending and that Russian soldiers will return to their garrisons, while the Belarusian government has also announced that not a single member of the Russian army will remain on the border between Belarus and Ukraine at the end of their current exercises. 

Crisis over? As Ruslan Leviev tells the FT, the trouble is that “last year, when they [Russia] were withdrawing troops, it was as if they accidentally forgot about a couple of armies, leaving them behind”. No one is quite sure if this is the same old story or a genuine breakthrough.

As Alex Harrowell explained well on his blog last month, the underlying difficulty here is that what is causing friction between the Russian government and Ukrainians is economics: “Cold-War Finland couldn’t join Nato, it wasn’t required to join the political economy of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t expected to become part of Gosplan.” It’s that demand that has proved politically unacceptable to so many Ukrainians and it has been economics and corruption that have been central to Ukraine’s protest movements in recent years.

What next? Jeremy was surely right in his piece for last week’s magazine to say that Vladimir Putin’s difficulty is that his actions have made Ukrainians more, not less, hostile to the Russian state. Andrew is surely right in his piece for this week’s to say that it underlines that even after Brexit, the United Kingdom’s policy priorities lie with close and fruitful working relationships with its European neighbours in general and France in particular. But what no one — not even the politicians involved — can really be certain about is how this all ends. 

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