Russia says it is withdrawing troops near Ukraine

Russia announced on Thursday that it will withdraw troops near Ukraine and annexed Crimea, deeming its military exercises over.

The enormous deployment, including dozens of navy ships, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of troops, has been heavily criticised by Western powers.

It was viewed as a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine.

“The troops have demonstrated their ability to ensure a reliable defence of the country,” said Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu in a press release, adding: “So I decided to complete the inspection activities in the southern and western military districts” bordering Ukraine.

Shoigu’s statement did not make clear, however, how many additional troops had been moved to Crimea – nor did he indicate whether all would be pulled back to their permanent bases.

“I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,” he noted.

He also said the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills would be kept there for another massive military exercise later this year.

Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region. The sprawling range is located 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.

According to NATO and the United States, the build-up of forces grew to its largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and lent support to separatists in Ukraine’s east.

There has also been an increasing number of violations of a ceasefire held in the region in recent weeks, as well as growing tensions between the two nations.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba encouraged the West on Tuesday to strengthen sanctions against Russia as he expressed concerns of the continued build-up of troops.

Meanwhile, Moscow rejected the concerns as it warned Kiev against trying to re-take the rebel-held eastern region. It said such an operation could force Russia into an intervention to protect civilians.

The Russian Defence Ministry said the military drills in Crimea had involved 60 ships, more than 10,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 1,200 military vehicles.

More than 2,000 paratroopers practiced a landing with 60 military vehicles on Thursday alone, while fighter jets covered overhead.

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