Pentagon also said Russian military build-up is an ‘unprovoked escalation’ aimed at ‘destabilising’ Ukraine.
Russia will on Friday begin returning troops to permanent bases inside the country, pulling them back from near the border with Ukraine, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Thursday’s announcement comes after weeks of tensions between Moscow, Kyiv and the latter’s Western allies over a major Russian military build-up near its western border with Ukraine and in annexed Crimea, which reportedly involved tens of thousands of troops.
Russia has argued that the build-up was defensive, while Ukraine – backed by Germany and other Western powers – has accused Moscow of attempting to provoke hostilities.
“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defence for the country,” RIA quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
“In this regard, I have decided to complete the inspections in the southern and western military districts,” he added.
The deployments took place against the backdrop of renewed clashes in Ukraine’s conflict-stricken eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatist forces since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
It was not immediately clear whether the rebasing order covered all of the forces involved in the recent military build-up.
The Russian military has not publicly declared the number of additional troops that it has moved, but the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said after EU foreign ministers were briefed by Ukraine’s foreign minister that the number was higher than 100,000.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the announcement.
In a tweet, he said Ukraine “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas [eastern Ukraine]”, adding “Grateful to international partners for their support”.
The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension. 🇺🇦 is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support #StrongerTogether
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 22, 2021
NATO and the United States – the leading member of the transatlantic security alliance – have said that the build-up was Russia’s largest since March 2014, when Moscow seized Crimea from Kyiv, and called for the forces to be pulled back.
Moscow has repeatedly rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the build-up, maintaining that it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on Russian territory.
The Kremlin has also routinely denied playing any role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The US said it will “continue to watch” the situation “very closely” after Russia’s announcement.
“We’ve heard words. I think what we’ll be looking for is action,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday.
Defence Minister Shoigu said the troops would return to their bases by May 1.
His comments came after he oversaw exercises in Crimea, near Ukraine’s southern border, on Thursday.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the drills in the Black Sea region 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 on Thursday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.
Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to monitor proceedings.
He later declared the drills over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any “unfavourable” developments during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Defender Europe is an annual, US army-led, multinational joint exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between US and other NATO militaries, as well as other partners.
The exercise began in March and will run until June.
It will feature more than 28,000 forces from 26 nations and see drills conducted across more than 30 training areas in a dozen countries.