Russia’s defence minister has ordered tens of thousands of troops recently deployed close to the border with Ukraine to return to their bases in a move likely to ease immediate fears of a conflict and reduce tensions with the west.
Moscow had moved as many as 100,000 troops, alongside tanks, military aircraft and naval ships, to its border with Ukraine over recent weeks, according to Kyiv, sparking fears of a potential invasion and prompting condemnation from the US and the Nato military alliance. Russia said the troops were conducting exercises and were no threat to anyone.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said on Thursday that the exercises had been completed and that the troops should start to leave the region from Friday. All troops would be back in their original bases by May 1, he added.
“I believe that the objectives of the surprise check have been fully achieved,” Shoigu said in a statement. “The troops have demonstrated the ability to provide a reliable defence of the country. In this regard, I made a decision to complete [the exercises].”
Russia’s rouble, which is sensitive to any threat of western sanctions, jumped as much as 1.4 per cent against the dollar on the news.
“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,” Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and de-escalate the situation in [the eastern region of] Donbass. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support,” he added.
Nato described the Russian announcement as “important and well overdue”.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, watches drills from a military helicopter in Crimea © Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry/AP
The possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine has put more pressure on strained relations between the Kremlin and western powers owing to new US sanctions on Moscow, a string of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and international anger at the poor health of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
While the call for a withdrawal looks set to alleviate short-term fears of a conflict, the region will remain a potential flashpoint, with Russia and Nato likely to continue to accuse each other of stoking tensions with the deployment of military personnel.
Nato said it would continue to “closely monitor Russia’s unjustified military build-up” in and around Ukraine. “Nato stands with Ukraine and we continue to call on Russia to respect its international commitments and withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory.”
Shoigu said all Russian troops should remain “in a state of readiness for an immediate response in case of the unfavourable development” of Nato’s annual Defender Europe exercises, which are taking place in eastern European countries until June.
The troop withdrawal announcement came a day after President Vladimir Putin used his annual national address to lawmakers to warn western countries to expect a “quick and tough” response if they cross any of Russia’s “red lines”.
Putin added on Thursday that he was ready to host Zelensky for talks aimed at rebuilding relations, but also suggested the Ukrainian president should first hold talks with the Moscow-backed separatist government in the Donbass — a non-starter for Kyiv.
“There were a lot of steps aimed at destroying our relations, which we, of course, can only regret,” Putin said. “If president Zelensky wants to start restoring these relations, we will only welcome this.”
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Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, in a move that precipitated a war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army for control of the Donbass, the eastern part of Ukraine bordering Russia.
Russia’s unexpected decision to conduct the recent military drills came amid a sharp rise in ceasefire breaches in Donbass, adding to the more than 14,000 people killed there since the conflict began.
The exercises led Ukrainian officials and a number of western capitals to warn that Russia may have been considering a military operation inside Ukrainian territory.
Ihor Romanenko, a former deputy head of Ukraine’s general staff, said the announced pullback of the troops had occurred “thanks to the successful efforts of Ukraine and its allies, the US, UK, Poland and Nato”. The partners had drawn their own “red line” for Putin, which the Russian president “could not cross”, he added.
But one adviser to Zelensky cautioned that it was still not certain exactly what the withdrawal meant.
“Obviously any withdrawal is welcome, but given the unprecedented build-up of Russian forces in the past months and the sustained build-up over past years, it’s not exactly clear what is meant by this statement,” the person said. “It’s still hard to predict how this unfolds.”
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