A buildup of Russian troops along the border in recent weeks has reignited tensions in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been battling Russian-backed separatists who have been demanding independence from Kiev since 2014.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday said troops have successfully completed exercises near Ukraine and will return to their permanent bases by May 1.
“I believe that the objectives of the trigger exercise have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated the ability to provide a reliable defense of the country,” Shoigu said at a meeting in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Kiev in 2014.
Shoigu’s announcement comes weeks after Moscow started its largest troop buildup near the Ukrainian border since 2014. The European Union estimated Tuesday that more than 100,000 troops had massed near the border and in Crimea.
It was not clear from Thursday’s announcement how many troops would remain in the region.
State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged Russia’s announcement, saying the US will continue to closely monitor the situation with Ukrainian officials and other allies, but added that “what we will seek is action.”
“We have made it clear in our engagement with the Russian government that it must refrain from escalating actions and immediately cease all aggressive activities in and around Ukraine, including its recent military buildup in occupied Crimea and on the Ukrainian border, and its plan to do so. block specific ships in parts of the Black Sea, “Price said in a briefing Thursday.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian open source intelligence group that has been monitoring Russia’s aggressive military buildup on the border, on Thursday suggested it was too early to judge whether the news amounted to a reduction in escalation.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said more than 20 ships took part in exercises in the Black Sea, which borders both countries.
“A ship unit consisting of frigates” Admiral Makarov “and” Admiral Essen “, small missile ships” Grayvoron “and” Vyshny Volochek “, as well as missile ships, small antisubmarine ships and large amphibious ships conducted an exercise to repel vehicles of a simulated enemy air attack using active electronic disturbances and the conditional use of air defense means “, reads a statement from the ministry.
Shoigu, who oversaw exercises in annexed Crimea near Ukraine’s southern border on Thursday, said the Russian military needed to be ready to respond quickly to any “unfavorable” developments given NATO’s military exercises in Europe for Defense. .
“Each year in Europe, the Alliance conducts up to 40 major operational training events with a clear anti-Russian goal. In the spring of this year, the NATO military began the most ambitious exercise of the past 30 years.” , Shoigu said.
He accused Ukraine’s military and political leadership of trying to destabilize the situation in the Donbass conflict zone and said the US and NATO continued to conduct “provocative activities” in the airspace and waters of the Black Sea.
The NATO alliance has expressed deep concern about the Russian military build-up near Ukraine, described last week by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as “part of a larger pattern of Russian aggressive action.
“The allies fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and we call on Russia to loosen up immediately, stop its pattern of aggressive provocations and honor its international commitments,” he said.
Ukraine sought to bolster international support in its stalemate with Moscow and urged its Western allies to promise new sanctions to discourage the Kremlin from resorting to more military forces.
In his speech on Tuesday, Zelenskii called on Ukrainian citizens to unite in the face of the Russian military threat. “Ukraine and Russia, despite their common past, look to the future differently. We are us. You are you. But this is not necessarily a problem, it is an opportunity. At least – an opportunity, before it is too late to stop the deadly math of future military losses. “
He blamed Russia for refusing to support a “general declaration” to restore a complete ceasefire in the area, despite “the support of all sides”.
In his annual address to the nation on Wednesday, Putin warned foreign powers not to cross Moscow’s “red lines”, but did not mention military build-up near Ukraine.
Last week, the Ukrainian president met French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris – who joined via video link – to discuss the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Ukrainian territories. . The three leaders concluded their meeting by inviting Russia to withdraw the extra troops massed on the Ukrainian border.
Reporting contributed by Denis Lapin in Kiev.