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Russia starts pulling troops from Crimea, reports say

April 23, 2021

The withdrawal will ease immediate fears that Russia was planning to further stoke tensions in Ukraine. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that was denounced as illegal by the UN, the EU and the US.

The Russian military conducted massive drills in Crimea involving dozens of navy ships and thousands of troops in a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine
Russian troops conducted drills in Crimea earlier this week, alarming the WestImage: Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/picture alliance

Russia has started pulling its troops back from Crimea, local news agencies reported on Friday.

The Ukrainian region was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

"Military units and formations are currently marching to railway loading stations and airfields, and loading onto landing ships, railway platforms and military transport aircraft," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by several agencies.

It comes one day after the Defense Ministry said Russia would also withdraw most of their soldiers from the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine's foreign minister welcomed the news but warned it would not change the situation on the ground in the country's eastern separatist regions.

"If Russia really pulls back from the border with Ukraine the enormous military force it has deployed there, this will already ease tensions," Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

"But we need to remember that this step would not put an end neither to the current escalation nor to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in general."

Why does the troop withdrawal matter?

Russia does keep a permanent contingent of forces along its 1,200-mile-long land frontier with Ukraine.

But the build-up of tens of thousands of army personnel had alarmed Western governments, sparking fears of a wider military intervention by Moscow.

An infographic showing the Russian positions on the Ukrainian border
Russia has a number of military assets stationed in the area

EU officials estimated that the number was as high as 100,000 near the border as well as in Crimea.

The Russian military carried out a series of drills there earlier this week, before announcing their end on Thursday.

Kurt Volker, a former US special representative to Ukraine, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was "trying to amass power and influence" through the military exercises.

"What he's done with the accumulation of military force here is to demonstrate that he has substantial military capability and the political will to act if he wants to, and is trying to demonstrate on the opposite side that the West is not willing to use force and is not willing to match that, and therefore, Ukraine had better watch out," Volker told DW in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

What is the state of Russia-Ukraine relations?

Russia has used troops in unmarked uniforms in Crimea in the past, and also supported separatists in an ongoing conflict in Ukraine's east.

The fighting there has cost some 14,000 lives despite a series of cease-fires.

Hours after the end to the exercises was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy was welcome in Moscow anytime to discuss bilateral relations.

But he said Zelenskyy should discuss the surge in fighting with separatist leaders in Ukraine's breakaway republics.

jf/rt (Reuters, AFP, Interfax)