Russia’s defense minister on Thursday ordered troops to return to their permanent bases following massive exercises amid tensions with Ukraine, but said they should leave their weapons in western Russia for another exercise later this year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the Russian withdrawal.
After watching the exercises, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the maneuvers in Crimea and large swathes of western Russia over and ordered the military to bring back the troops participating in them to their permanent bases.
“I consider the objectives of the instant readiness check to be met,” said Shoigu. “The troops have shown their ability to defend the country and I have decided to end the exercises in the southern and western military districts.”
Shoigu said the troops are expected to return to their bases by May 1, but ordered that the heavy weapons deployed in western Russia be retained as part of the drills of another massive military exercise later this year.
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Shoigu said they should stay at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern region of Voronezh. The wide range is located 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.
The build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine amid growing ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine has raised concerns in the West, which has urged the Kremlin to withdraw its strengths.
The United States and NATO have said that Russia’s build-up near Ukraine was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in the industrial hub of Ukraine. is from Ukraine called Donbass.
The Ukrainian president said the withdrawal of Russian troops would help ease tensions and thanked international partners for their support.
“The reduction in troops at our border proportionately reduces tensions,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter. He noted that Ukraine remains vigilant, but “welcomes any measure aimed at reducing the military presence and defusing the situation in Donbass”.
Earlier this week, Zelenskyy offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a meeting in the Donbass to defuse tensions.
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Putin responded in televised remarks on Thursday, saying that if Ukraine’s leaders want to settle the conflict in the Donbass, they should first engage in talks with the separatist leaders in the east and only after that discuss it with Russia. If Zelenskyy wants to discuss the normalization of relations with Russia, he is welcome in Moscow, the Russian leader said.
The Russian military did not report the number of additional troops that were moved to Crimea and parts of southwestern Russia near Ukraine, and it was not immediately clear from the statement. de Shoigu if they were all going to be withdrawn.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, more than 10,000 troops, around 200 planes and around 1,200 military vehicles.
The exercise included the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on Thursday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.
Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to supervise the exercise. He then declared the exercises over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise. NATO exercises began in March and are scheduled to last until June.
“NATO has dramatically stepped up its military activities in the region,” Shoigu said. “Intelligence gathering has increased and the intensity and scope of operational training has increased. One of the alliance’s main coalition groups is being deployed to the Black Sea region.”
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Russia has long bristled with the deployment of NATO forces near its borders and stepped up exercises as relations with the West sank into post-Cold War lows due to annexation Crimea, Russian interference in the elections, hacking attacks and other issues.
Last week, Russia announced it would close large areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state ships until November, a move that sparked Ukrainian protests and raised Western concerns. Russia also this week announced restrictions on flights near Crimea, saying they were in full compliance with international law.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday warned that Russia’s build-up across the border was continuing and “is expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops” in about a week and urged the West to strengthen sanctions against Moscow.
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Moscow dismissed Ukrainian and Western concerns about the build-up, saying it was free to deploy its forces anywhere in Russian territory and accusing it of not threatening anyone. But at the same time, the Kremlin has sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against any attempt to use force to regain control from rebels in the east, where seven years of fighting has killed more than 14,000 people, saying the Russia may be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region. .
Amid tensions, the Ukrainian president on Wednesday signed a law authorizing the call of reservists for military service without announcing any mobilization. The new law will quickly equip the military with reservists, “dramatically increasing their combat effectiveness in a military aggression,” Zelenskyy’s office said in a statement.
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