(NewsNation Now) — Amid soaring tensions with the West over a possible invasion of Ukraine, the diplomatic rhetoric coming out of Moscow can be confusing when comparing it to the realities on the ground.
“Vladimir Putin is saying one thing and doing the other, NewsNation’s Leland Vittert said on “Morning in America.” “He’s saying that he is withdrawing troops, when in fact he is actually increasing the number of troops and moving them closer to attack positions.”
The Russian Defense Military said Tuesday that some troops are returning to their bases after completing drills near the Ukrainian border, yet another gesture apparently aimed at easing fears it is planning to invade Ukraine.
Hours after Russia announced that some units would begin returning to their bases, Biden said the U.S. has “not yet verified” the claim.
Biden went as far as saying “an invasion remains distinctly possible” when delivering an update to the American people on the situation with Russia on Tuesday.
NATO and Western governments said they haven’t seen any signs of de-escalation, and Russia gave no details on how many troops were withdrawing, nor from where they were pulling back.
In contrast to Putin’s declaration, satellite images taken over the last 48 hours show increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations.
The photos also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation, according to Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup.
“You might ask Vladimir Putin, should I believe you or my lying eyes,” Vittert said.
U.S. officials said the Russian military continued apparent attack preparations along Ukraine’s borders. A U.S. defense official said small numbers of Russian ground units have been moving out of larger assembly areas for several days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be departure points if Putin launched an invasion.
Putin “knows how to at every moment play one side against each other,” Vittert said. “Play the United States against our NATO allies, play Ukraine against the other European countries.”
Everything Putin does needs to be looked at as calculated. He wants to figure out what the reactions are going to be, according to Vittert. By gesturing a troop withdrawal from the border, Putin wanted to see how the U.S. would react.
“He puts out little breadcrumbs, and then sees who picks them up,” Vittert said. “This is true from an intelligence standpoint as well.”
According to Vittert, these reactions give Putin important intelligence, a sense of where leaks are within his own organization, give him a sense of what the Ukrainians’ intelligence abilities are.
“And that’s what we’ve seen happen over the past 24 hours,” Vittert said.
The U.S. and its NATO allies are obviously not going to show their cards when it comes to where they are getting their information on Russian intentions, and there are several ways sensitive information can be gathered.
Spies, or human intelligence from people inside the Russian military, could divulge information. Members of the Russian intelligence community could be telling members of the U.S. intelligence community what’s going on.
However, “Vladimir Putin’s inner circle is notoriously difficult to penetrate,” Vittert said.
In addition, Vittert said, “you have signals intelligence, that would be intercepted communications. And that, obviously is notoriously difficult to tell what’s real information, what you’re actually hearing, and what the Russians want you to hear.”
Determining what is real and what is deception is what Vittert calls “the real art” in this.
“Figuring out when you hear an order go out to Russian troops to move closer to the border,” Vittert said, “is that because they’re actually supposed to move closer to the border? Or is that because the Russians are testing?”
The gift for deception doesn’t end there. In addition to Russia’s track record of using social media to spread disinformation and propaganda, the Biden administration has also warned that intelligence reports had indicated Russia was planning “false flag” reports that would make it appear that Ukraine itself ignited military action.
Another way information is gathered across borders is through satellite images.
“And pictures don’t lie,” Vittert said.
“We have the commercial satellite images of Russian fighter jets moving toward Crimea and in Belarus so that they would be in attack positions,” Vittert said. “Russian military helicopters moving into Crimea, which is the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine that they took back in 2014.”
Ultimately it is a waiting game as the world watches to see if Biden’s threat of sanctions is enough to deter Putin, who views Ukraine as his pathway to reviving the Russian motherland.
“Who wins in that test of wills,” Vittert said, “Is what we wait and find out.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.