Russia orders troop pullback but keeps weapons near Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia (AP) — Russia’s defence minister yesterday ordered troops back to their permanent bases following massive drills amid tensions with Ukraine, but said they should leave their weapons behind in western Russia for another exercise later this year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the Russian pullback along the country’s border.

After watching the drills, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the maneuvers in Crimea and wide swathes of western Russia over, and ordered the military to pull the troops that took part in them back to their permanent bases.

“I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,” Shoigu said. “The troops have shown their capability to defend the country and I decided to complete the drills in the south and western military districts.”

Shoigu said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he ordered their heavy weapons kept in western Russia for another massive military exercise. The weapons were remaining at the Pogonovo firing range in the south-western Voronezh region, 160 kilometres (100 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.

The Russian troop build-up near Ukraine that came amid increasing violations of a ceasefire in war-torn eastern Ukraine raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.

A Ukrainian soldier was killed yesterday by separatist fire in the east, bringing the number of Ukrainian troops killed this year to 32.

The US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have said the Russian build-up near Ukraine was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas.

Ukraine’s president applauded the Russian troops’ pullback.

“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter. He noted that Ukraine remains vigilant but “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and de-escalate the situation in Donbas”.

Earlier this week, Zelenskyy offered to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Donbas to defuse tensions.

Putin responded in televised remarks yesterday, saying if the Ukrainian leadership wants to settle the conflict in Donbas, it should first engage in talks with separatist leaders there and only after that discuss it with Russia. If Zelenskyy wants to discuss normalising ties with Russia, he’s welcome to come to Moscow, the Russian leader said.

The Russian military hasn’t reported the number of additional troops that had been moved to Crimea and parts of south-western Russia near Ukraine, and it wasn’t immediately clear from Shoigu’s statement if all of them will now be pulled back.

The Russian Defence Ministry said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles.

The exercise featured the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles yesterday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.

Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to oversee the exercise. He later declared the drills over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise. The NATO drills began in March and are to last until June.

“NATO has significantly intensified its military activities in the region,” Shoigu said. “Intelligence gathering has increased and the intensity and scope of operational training has been growing. One of the alliance’s main coalition groups is being deployed in the Black Sea region.”

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