Russian troops began to withdraw to their permanent bases after a massive build-up that caused Ukrainian and Western concerns
MOSCOW – Russian troops began withdrawing to their permanent bases on Friday after a massive build-up that caused Ukrainian and Western concerns.
On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the extensive maneuvers in Crimea and large swathes of western Russia over and ordered the military to return troops that took part there to their permanent bases by 1 May.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the announcement.
The Russian defense ministry said on Friday that its forces that took part in the massive exercises in Crimea are moving aboard trains, transport aircraft and landing ships en route to their permanent bases.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kiev awaits intelligence confirmation of the withdrawal.
“We want to see that Russian actions match Russian words,” Kuleba said on Friday during a visit to Romania. “What was said was not enough, we want to see that this will be implemented and all these forces will be removed from our border.”
He added that if the withdrawal were confirmed, “this would mean a real easing of tension”.
At the United Nations, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric also hailed the withdrawal, saying that “any move that lowers tensions, as we would expect, must be welcomed”.
While ordering the withdrawal of military personnel, Shoigu ordered their heavy weapons to be held in western Russia for a massive exercise called Zapad (West) 2021 at the end of the year. The weapons were to be stored at the Pogonovo shooting range in the southwestern Voronezh region, 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the Russian border with Ukraine.
The US and NATO said the troop build-up was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and lent its support to separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. More than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.
Concentration of Russian troops amid growing ceasefire violations in the conflict in eastern Ukraine raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to withdraw its forces.
Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns, claiming it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on Russian territory. But the Kremlin has also sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to regain control of the Eastern rebels, saying it could intervene to protect civilians there.
Asked whether the Kremlin thinks the withdrawal of Russian troops could help ease tensions with the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issues were unrelated.
“It’s not a problem for Russia-US relations,” Peskov said in a phone call to reporters. “We have said that any movement of Russian troops on Russian territory poses no threat and does not represent an escalation. Russia does what it deems necessary for its military organization and troop training. “
Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania, Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.