WASHINGTON — Russia has withdrawn only a few thousand troops from the border with Ukraine, senior Biden administration officials said, despite signals from Moscow last month that it was dialing down tensions in the volatile region.
Senior Defense Department officials said that close to 80,000 Russian troops remained near various strips of the country’s border with Ukraine, still the biggest force Russia has amassed there since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
The Russian military did order some units back to their barracks by May 1 — and they did move from the border — the officials said. But many of the units left their trucks and armored vehicles behind, a signal that they could go back if President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia decided to deploy them again.
President Biden said on Tuesday that it was his “hope and expectation” that he would meet with Mr. Putin during a trip to Europe in June that includes attending a NATO summit in Brussels. The administration has paired the offer of a meeting, an important symbol of Moscow’s continuing influence on the world stage, with a toughening of sanctions on Russia for its cyberattacks, election meddling, threats against Ukraine and poisoning of Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader.
Administration officials said they were taking the sustained troop presence at the Ukrainian border as a message from Mr. Putin that he could match — and, in fact, dwarf — the number of troops taking part in a NATO military exercise in Europe, which officially began on Tuesday. That exercise, called Defender Europe, will include about 28,000 troops from the United States and European allies participating in maneuvers over the next two months across Albania and other parts of Eastern Europe on Mr. Putin’s doorstep.
Military analysts have noted that Mr. Putin’s troop deployment was clearly intended to be visible, an effort at muscle-flexing and part of standard operating procedure for the Kremlin, especially at the beginning of a new American presidency. Mr. Putin could well be looking for ways to test Mr. Biden’s resolve, officials said. But the danger is that any military buildup could spiral out of control, or prompt a deeper crisis.
“For all of the deliberative strategy, there is a standing risk of things going wrong, signals being misinterpreted,” said Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund. “An aircraft could be shot down. Something could happen.”
American officials say they remain unsure what exactly Mr. Putin’s aims are in his troop surge or in his decision so far not to follow through completely on the withdrawal announcement. That ambiguity could be part of the Russian leader’s calculations.
“They have retained a rather lethal force in the region and have only pulled back some forces,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a retired former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe who is now NATO’s special operations adviser to Ukraine.
80,000 Russian Troops Remain at Ukraine Border as NATO Holds Exercise