Russia orders troops back from occupied Crimea and border with Ukraine

Nataliya Vasilyeva
·4-min read
Russian paratroopers take part in drills at a military aerodrome in Taganrog  - Reuters
Russian paratroopers take part in drills at a military aerodrome in Taganrog - Reuters

Russia ordered its troops amassing at the border with Ukraine to pull back on Thursday, dialling down fears of an imminent invasion that threatened to draw the West into conflict with Vladimir Putin.

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops had moved to the border with Ukraine and into the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula, something that the region has not seen since major hostilities in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015.

Watch: Russia orders troops out after buildup near Ukraine

After weeks of tensions, prompting a phone call between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, Russia's defence minister on Thursday said on that most of the troops would be withdrawn immediately as the goals of what he described as a readiness exercise “have been fully achieved”.

“The troops have shown their capacity to provide a solid defence for our country,” Sergey Shoygu, defence minister, said in televised remarks after inspecting training grounds in Crimea where a heightened military presence raised a particular concern in the West.

Analysts said the build-up of forces may have been a show of strength by Mr Putin designed to rile the West and distract from the plight of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, languishing in prison on hunger strike.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watches drills form a board of military helicopter in Crimea - Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watches drills form a board of military helicopter in Crimea - Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Kyiv had accused Moscow of trying to provoke fighting in the long-simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine but Russia insisted that the unusually high number of troops that had moved across the country in late March to its south-western border were merely there for military exercises.  

Starting on Friday, all the troops involved in military drills in the south and the west will begin their withdrawal to their bases, Russia said.

Yet, some armoured vehicles will remain in one area in the south, about 100 kilometres from the Ukranian border, until the end of summer when new military drills are set to begin in Russia’s west.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, cautiously welcomed the Russian withdrawal.

“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tensions,” Mr Zelenskiy tweeted in his English-language account,” adding that Ukraine will remain vigilant.

Mr Putin responded to an offer from Mr Zelenskiy to meet for peace talks in the warzone of contested eastern Ukraine by tabling a counter proposal to meet in Moscow. Mr Zelenskiy is highly unlikely to travel to Moscow for talks given the heightened tensions.

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Mr Putin also reiterated Moscow’s assertion that it has no role in the conflict in the east and that the Ukrainian president would be better off talking with the separatist leaders who all subside on Russian weapon supplies and aid.

The sudden end to Russia’s worrying sabre-rattling came the day after Mr Putin issued a stern warning for the West, saying that Russia will never allow it to encroach on its “core interests” and referred to unnamed “red lines” which, he said, are up to Moscow to draw.

A few hours after the announced pull-back, President Putin took part in a virtual summit on climate change, chaired by US President Joe Biden who recently urged Moscow to de-escalate.

Mr Biden called Mr Putin last week and offered a one-to-one meeting in what the Kremlin saw as the U.S. backing down in the war of words with Russia.

The Kremlin was clearly encouraged by President Biden’s phone call and felt no further need to demonstrate Russia's military might, Kremlin watchers said.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine flared up at the end of March when hostilities in the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine resumed all of the sudden, resulting in a high number of casualties.

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Satellite images released earlier this week showed a massive military build-up in Russia-occupied Crimea including dozens of fighter jets which some Ukrainian politicians called a potential invasion force.

Moscow’s redeployment should include 15 ships from the Caspian Sea flotilla currently holding exercises around the Kerch Strait, which Russia has threatened to close to Ukrainian non-commercial ships.

Ukraine's Navy deployed its small fleet on the Sea of Azov to monitor the Russian exercises.

A Ukrainian military source told the Telegraph before Mr Shoigu's announcement that the Russian exercises, which appeared to simulate amphibious landings, were expected to run at least until Sunday.