Ukraine welcomes Russian plan to reduce forces near its border
Diplomatic tension continues as Prague tells Moscow to recall dozens of embassy staff
This handout picture released by the Russian defence ministry shows forces taking part in a military drill along the Opuk training ground not far from the town of Kerch, on the Kerch Peninsula in the east of the Crimea. Photograph: Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defence Ministry/AFP via Getty
Ukraine has welcomed Moscow’s decision to end war games close to its borders and in occupied Crimea and return thousands of Russian troops to base, in a move that could ease western fears over the Kremlin’s military intentions.
The European Union, United States and Nato had urged Russia to reverse its recent build-up of soldiers and armour, amid an escalation of fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that is partly controlled by Moscow-led separatists; Russia insisted its forces were conducting drills that did not pose a threat to any country.
“The troops have demonstrated their ability to ensure the reliable defence of the country,” said Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, as he oversaw exercises in Crimea on Thursday involving more than 10,000 soldiers and 40 warships.
“As a result, I have decided to conclude the inspection drills in the southern and western military districts,” he added, ordering units to start returning to their permanent bases from Friday.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was quick to respond on Twitter: “The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension. Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and de-escalate the situation in Donbas,” he wrote. “Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support.”
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said on Thursday he was willing to meet Mr Zelenskiy in Moscow, days after Ukraine’s leader offered to hold peace talks with him in Donbas.
Yet in a sign that tension in the region may remain elevated for some time, Mr Shoigu ordered Russia’s military to be ready to respond quickly to any “unfavourable development” in the security situation during forthcoming Nato war games in the Black Sea.
Moreover, it is unclear how many of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops now in Crimea and near eastern Ukraine will return to base, and a significant amount of their weaponry is expected to remain at a staging area only about 200km from Ukraine.
The military manoeuvres have taken place amid a further fraying of diplomatic ties, as the US imposed fresh sanctions on Russia and the two countries expelled 10 of each other’s diplomats.
US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan flew home for consultations on Thursday, a month after Russia’s envoy to Washington Anatoly Antonov returned to Moscow in response to US president Joe Biden saying he regarded Mr Putin as “a killer”.
The Czech Republic told Moscow on Thursday to recall dozens more staff from its embassy in Prague, just days after it expelled 18 suspected Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover and Russia responded by sending home 20 Czech diplomats.
The row erupted after Prague blamed Moscow for a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot, and revealed that it suspects the involvement of two Russian intelligence officers whom the UK accuses of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
Western capitals are also closely monitoring developments in Belarus, which is under Kremlin pressure to allow deeper integration with Russia. Mr Putin was due to hold talks on Thursday evening with autocratic Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who claims to have been the target of a failed US-backed coup attempt.