Russia orders soldiers to begin return to bases after drills near Ukraine

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia ordered its top army command to begin returning troops to their permanent bases inside the country from Friday, saying it had successfully completed a "snap inspection" of forces in its south and west, near the border with Ukraine, the RIA news agency reported.

The announcement prompted the rouble to rise sharply, following weeks of tensions with the West over a major Russian military buildup near Ukraine.

It was unclear if the rebasing order covered all of the forces involved in that buildup. The EU's top diplomat said on Monday that Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near the border.

"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," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying.

"In this regard, I have decided to complete the inspections in the southern and western military districts," he said.

He said they would return to their bases by May 1.

Shoigu, after overseeing exercises in annexed Crimea near Ukraine's southern border on Thursday, said however that the military had to be ready to respond quickly in case of an "unfavourable" development in the situation near NATO's Defender Europe exercises, the Interfax news agency reported.

Defender-Europe is an annual, U.S. Army-led, multinational joint exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between U.S. and other NATO militaries, as well as other partners.

From March to June, more than 28,000 forces from 26 nations will conduct drills across more than 30 training areas in a dozen countries.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Mark Trevelyan)