Russia appeared to be pulling back from a confrontation with the West on Friday as state media reported that troops were returning to their bases after taking part in exercises near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea.
A buildup of Russian troops along the border in recent weeks had reignited tensions in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists demanding independence from Kiev since 2014.
But on Thursday Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu suddenly declared that the troops had completed their drills in the south of the country near Ukraine and Crimea, and would return to their permanent bases by May 1. “I believe that the objectives of the snap drill 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.
“At present, military units and formations are marching to railway stations, airfields, loading onto landing ships, railway platforms and military transport aircraft,” Tass reported on Friday, citing the Ministry of Defense.
Shoigu’s announcement came weeks after Moscow initiated the largest buildup of troops near the Ukrainian border since 2014. It was unclear from Thursday’s announcement how many troops would remain in the region.
More than 10,000 servicemen and 1,200 units of weapons and military equipment took part in the “snap inspection” according to Tass. Ukrainian military officials told CNN earlier this month they estimate an extra 50,000 Russian troops had gathered in recent weeks across the Russia-Ukraine border and in Crimea. The European Union put the figure even higher, estimating on Tuesday that more than 100,000 troops had amassed near the border and in Crimea.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday acknowledged Russia’s announcement, saying that the US would continue to closely monitor the situation with Ukrainian officials and other allies, but added that “what we’ll be looking for is action.”
“We have made clear in our engagement with the Russian government that it needs to refrain from escalatory actions and immediately cease all its aggressive activity in and around Ukraine, including its recent military buildup in occupied Crimea, and on Ukraine’s border, and its intention to block specific vessels in the parts of the Black Sea,” Price said at a briefing Thursday.
Some weapons from Russia’s 41st army, which include tanks and heavy artillery, will be left behind until the joint Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 strategic military exercises take place in September, according to Russian state news agency TASS. That leaves Russia with more firepower on the Ukrainian border than it had previously.
Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian open-source intelligence group that has been monitoring Russia’s aggressive military buildup on the border, suggested Thursday that it was too early to judge whether the news amounted to a de-escalation.
“By our assessment, the forces remaining at Ukraine’s border still present a danger of deployment into occupied Eastern Ukraine, while a large-scale invasion of government-controlled territory would certainly require moving more troops to the border,” CIT said on Twitter.
On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense said more than 20 ships had taken part in exercises in the Black Sea, which borders both countries.
“A unit of ships consisting of frigates “Admiral Makarov” and “Admiral Essen”, small missile ships “Grayvoron” and “Vyshny Volochek”, as well as missile boats, small anti-submarine ships and large amphibious ships conducted an exercise to repel air attack means of a simulated enemy using active electronic jamming and the conditional use of air defense means,” a ministry statement read.
Shoigu, who oversaw the drills in annexed Crimea near Ukraine’s southern border on Thursday, said Russia’s military had to be ready to respond swiftly to any “unfavorable” development given NATO’s ongoing Defender-Europe military exercises.
Defender-Europe is an annual, large-scale US Army-led multinational exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between the US and its NATO partner militaries. It was canceled last year over coronavirus concerns.
“Every year in Europe, the Alliance conducts up to 40 major operational training events with a clear anti-Russian focus. In the spring of this year, the combined armed forces of NATO began the most ambitious exercise in the past 30 years,” Shoigu said.
He accused the military and political leadership of Ukraine of seeking to destabilize the situation in the Donbass conflict zone, and said the United States and NATO continued to conduct “provocative activities” in the airspace and waters of the Black Sea.
The NATO alliance has expressed deep concern over the Russian military buildup near Ukraine, described by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week as “part of a broader pattern of Russian aggressive action.
“Allies fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and we call on Russia to de-escalate immediately, stop its pattern of aggressive provocations and respect its international commitments,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday invited President Vladimir Putin to meet in the Donbass, urging his Russian counterpart to restore a ceasefire in the eastern region where he said “millions of lives” are at stake. Putin said Thursday he was willing to discuss bilateral relations with Zelensky in the Russian capital, TASS reported.
Ukraine has been trying to bolster international support in its deadlock with Moscow, and has urged its Western allies to pledge new sanctions to discourage the Kremlin from resorting to more military force.
In his speech on Tuesday, Zelensky 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 we. You are you. But this is not necessarily a problem, it is an opportunity. At the very least – an opportunity, before it’s too late, to stop the deadly mathematics of future military losses.”
He blamed Russia for refusing to support a “general statement” to restore a full ceasefire in the area, despite “the support of all parties.”
In his annual address to the nation on Wednesday, Putin warned foreign powers not to cross Moscow’s “red lines,” but made no mention of the military buildup near Ukraine.
Last week, the Ukrainian President met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who joined via video link – to discuss the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Ukrainian territories. The three leaders ended their meeting calling on Russia to withdraw extra troops amassed on the Ukrainian border.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where in Russia the military exercises were taking place. They were in southern Russia and Crimea.
Reporting contributed by Denis Lapin in Kiev.