Belarus’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that “not a single” Russian soldier or piece of military equipment would remain on its territory after joint military exercises conclude, while Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video showing equipment soldiers crossing the bridge from Crimea to Russia.

All of this comes a day after Russia announced that some troops would return to their bases after completing training. Although the president of the United States, Joe Biden, said that his country had not yet verified any reduction of the 150,000 Russian soldiers that have accumulated near the borders of Ukraine.

Russia brings armored vehicles closer to the Ukrainian borderSo how significant are the latest developments?

What we know

Let’s start with what we know. The statement that Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, gave on Tuesday was very brief in details. According to him he said, the troops of the Russian Southern and Western Military Districts had already started loading their equipment to return to their bases. However, the military did not give details on where these units were carrying out exercises, which are their stations of origin or how many soldiers in total were leaving home.

In addition, we know from the press releases of the Ministry of Defense that the exercises in Belarus involve a significant number of troops from the entire Russian Federation. Among them, units based in the Russian Eastern Military District, that is several time zones to the east of European Russia. It is a huge region bounded on its eastern edge by the Pacific Ocean.

Russia is a huge country that spans 11 time zones. Its Army divides the country into five administrative territories: the Western, Southern, Central and Eastern districts and the Northern Fleet.

The troops that were withdrawing from the exercises in Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – were technically being executed inside Russia’s Southern Military District. Troops from the Southern Military District could return to bases in the North Caucasus or Rostov Oblast.

So Tuesday’s statements give us very few official clues as to how important this move is. It could easily be a rotation, with new troops arriving, or a gradual drawdown after exercises. And Konashenkov made it clear that Russia’s current exercises at sea are quite global in scope, taking place in “operationally important areas of the world’s oceans” and in the waters adjacent to Russia’s territory.

What should be considered about Russia?

Tension between Russia and Ukraine grows, what will happen?Now, there are a few things to keep in mind in the coming days. Putin and the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, will meet this week. So it is possible that we will get some clue as to when the exercises in Belarus will end and when the Russian soldiers will return home.

Asked if a decision on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus would be made during that meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s wait for the meeting.”

Meanwhile, some Western officials are skeptical of the Russian troop announcement. In that sense, they said that there was no evidence that a reduction in the crisis was on the table.

“The signals coming from Moscow about the willingness to continue to engage in diplomatic efforts…give some reason for cautious optimism. But of course we will closely monitor what is happening on the ground and if this is reflected in a real de-escalation of the Russian military build-up around Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday.

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