Russia says it will begin a phased reduction of troops from its border with neighboring Ukraine – apparently ending a deployment that had alarmed Kyiv and Western observers concerned about a possible repeat of Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking on Thursday after overseeing drills in Crimea involving more than 10,000 troops, appeared to suggest that the ominous troop buildup on the border was more or less a routine training exercise.
He ordered ground troops to return to bases in Vladikavkaz and Novosibirsk and airborne units to Pskov, Ivanovo and the Krasnodar region, beginning Friday and finishing by May 1. Russian naval forces in the Black Sea were also part of the military exercise.
"I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved," the Interfax news agency quoted Shoigu as saying. "The troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country."
"In this regard, I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews," he added.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is supplying an armed insurgency in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia.
Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomed the de-escalation by Russia but said Kyiv would remain vigilant.
"The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension," Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter. "Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbass."
Shoigu ordered military chiefs to "analyze the snap inspections in all levels of management and draw up a plan to eliminate shortcomings," according to Interfax. He also said that despite the troop reduction, Russia would keep a close tab on planned NATO exercises.
Most of Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the late-18th century and Ukraine was a founding republic of the former Soviet Union. It finally gained independence from Moscow with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Although not currently a NATO member, Ukraine has long expressed a desire to join the Western alliance – a move Russia says would be a "huge strategic mistake."
Earlier this month, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was hoping to hasten progress toward NATO membership and announced that it would take part in joint military exercises known as "Exercise Cossack Mace" with NATO forces later this year.
The Kremlin had rebuffed U.S. and European concern over the buildup, saying it will defend its national interests the way it sees fit. On Wednesday, Putin — who has ignored calls by Ukraine for talks to defuse the situation — warned NATO to stay clear of Russia's "red lines."
Russia ordering troops back to base after their deployment to the border is an important and timely move, a NATO official told Reuters.
"Any steps towards de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue," the unnamed NATO official said.
"NATO remains vigilant and we will continue to closely monitor Russia's unjustified military build-up in and around Ukraine," the official said.
The tensions in Eastern Europe come at a particularly fraught time for relations between Washington and Moscow, with the U.S. ramping up sanctions against Russia in retaliation for a major cyberattack, the Kremlin's alleged interference in U.S. elections and reports that the Kremlin offered the Afghan Taliban bounty payments to kill American troops stationed there. Putin's government has denied all the allegations.
Washington has also expressed concern over the health of Russia's main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a prison hunger strike. He is reportedly in precarious health.
NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow contributed to this report.
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