Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Special Update: Western Media Reports that Russia has Withdrawn 10,000 Troops from the Ukrainian Border are Inaccurate

By George Barros and Mason Clark

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. Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) stated on December 25 that over 10,000 personnel from unspecified SMD units finished exercises in Rostov, Kuban, Crimea, Astrakhan, Volgograd, Stavropol, "in the Republics of the North Caucasus," Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, and would redeploy to their permanent garrisons on December 25.[1]  Kremlin media did not prominently cover the SMD announcement as it would if this were a Russian information campaign.

The SMD statement did not frame this development as a de-escalation against Ukraine, and in fact, stressed the high readiness level of the SMD’s forces. The statement claims that the SMD units completed training, that the equipment they used will be fully serviced and brought back into readiness before the end of 2021 “for further operation according to the plan for the winter training period,” and states that SMD units will be assigned new tasks to maintain high combat readiness to be able to respond to possible “emergency situations” during the New Year holidays.[2]

Western misreporting about these exercises likely began in a misleading Reuters headline. Independent Russian news outlet Interfax accurately reported that 10,000 SMD troops finished exercises and returned “from the field” to their permanent bases.[3] Reuters inaccurately quoted Interfax’s report with the headline, “More than 10,000 Russian troops returning to bases after drills near Ukraine [emphasis added] -Interfax.”[4] Interfax did not characterize the 10,000 troops as exercising “near Ukraine,” did not characterize the SMD report as being a drawdown, and listed the locations where the exercises occurred across southern Russia and the Caucuses. 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.

Russia likely has not decreased its force posture around Ukraine. The SMD statement did not address Russian units deployed in Yelnya, Kursk, and Voronezh and postured against Ukraine – the bulk of the publicly observed buildup around Ukraine since October 2021. Russian units permanently stationed in Crimea, Rostov, and Kuban returning to their permanent garrisons are still de facto postured against Ukraine. Motorized rifle and artillery elements of the North Caucasus-based Russian 58th Combined Arms Army that deployed to Crimea could remain in Crimea despite this announcement.[5]    

Western media and policymakers should scrutinize both Russian activities and how second-hand reports may miscontextualize them. The Kremlin benefits from Western misunderstanding of its activities. Western reporters, analysts, and observers must scrutinize secondary and primary reports of Russian activities to avoid inadvertently perpetuating misunderstandings about Russian actions.

[1] https://function dot mil dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12400529@egNews

[2] dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12400529@egNews

[3] https://www.interfax dot ru/russia/812504