Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images
Russia says it will begin a gradual drawdown of troops from the border with neighboring Ukraine – apparently ending a deployment that alarmed Kiev and Western observers concerned about a possible repeat of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking Thursday after overseeing exercises in Crimea involving more than 10,000 soldiers, seemed to suggest that the menacing troop build-up at the border was more or less a routine training exercise.
He ordered ground troops to return to bases in Vladikavkaz and Novosibirsk and to airborne units in Pskov, Ivanovo and the Krasnodar region, starting on Friday and ending by 1 May. Russian naval forces in the Black Sea were also part of the military exercise.
“I believe that the objectives of the rapid inspection have been fully achieved,” said Shoigu, quoting the Interfax news agency. “The troops have demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country.”
“In this regard, I have decided to complete the reviews of the southern and western military district,” he added.
Sergei Malgavko / Sergei Malgavko / TASS
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is providing an armed insurrection in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed Russia’s easing of tension, but said Kiev will remain vigilant.
“The reduction of troops on our border reduces the tension proportionally,” Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine is always vigilant, but welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and reduce the situation in the Donbass.”
The reduction of troops on our border reduces the tension proportionally. he is always vigilant, but welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and reduce the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support #StrongerTogether
– Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 22, 2021
Shoigu ordered military chiefs to “analyze quick inspections at all levels of management and come up with a plan to eliminate deficiencies,” according to Interfax. He also said that despite troop reductions, Russia will maintain tight control over planned NATO exercises.
Most of Ukraine was absorbed by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, and Ukraine was a founding republic of the former Soviet Union. Eventually it gained independence from Moscow with the collapse of the USSR Although not currently a NATO member, Ukraine has long expressed a desire to join the Western alliance – a move that Russia says would be a “huge” strategic error “.
Earlier this month, Zelenskii said Ukraine hoped to accelerate progress towards NATO membership and announced that he would take part in joint military exercises known as the “Mace Cossack Exercise” with NATO forces within. end of year.
The Kremlin has dismissed the US and Europe’s concern for accumulation, saying it will defend its national interests in the way it sees fit. On Wednesday, Putin – who ignored Ukraine’s calls for talks to defuse the situation – warned NATO to steer clear of Russia’s “red lines”.
Russia ordering troops to return to base after their deployment at the border is an important and timely move, a NATO official told Reuters.
“Any step towards easing the escalation by Russia would be important and highly anticipated,” the unnamed NATO official said.
“NATO remains vigilant and we will continue to closely monitor Russia’s unjustified military training in and around Ukraine,” the official said.
Tensions in Eastern Europe come at a particularly difficult time for relations between Washington and Moscow, with the US stepping up sanctions against Russia in retaliation for a major cyber attack, alleged Kremlin interference in US elections, and the news that the Kremlin has offered the Afghan Taliban payments to kill American troops stationed there. Putin’s government has denied all allegations.
Washington also expressed concern about the health of the main Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who is on his third week of his hunger strike in prison. He is reportedly in poor health.
Lucian Kim of NPR in Moscow contributed to this report.