Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered Russian troops to start returning to their permanent bases following extensive military drills in annexed Crimea that heightened tensions with the West over Moscow’s major military buildup near Ukraine.
“I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” Shoigu was quoted as saying on April 22 by the RIA news agency.
“In this regard, I have decided to complete the inspections in the southern and western military districts,” he said, adding that the troops would return to their bases by May 1.
However, it was unclear from Shoigu’s announcement if the return order covered all of the troops involved in that buildup.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the drills in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft, and about 1,200 military vehicles.
But the Russian military hasn’t reported the total number of additional troops that have been moved to the region. Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat said on April 19 that Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near the border.
Russia has argued that it has the right to deploy its forces anywhere on its territory and claimed that they don’t threaten anyone.
On April 20, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that the Russian buildup across the border was continuing and was “expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops” in about a week, urging the West to beef up sanctions against Moscow.
Shoigu said the military had to be ready to respond quickly in case of an “unfavorable” developments arising from NATO’s DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercises, an annual, U.S. Army-led, multinational joint exercise across 26 countries in Europe and Africa, including Estonia — which shares a border with Russia — Bulgaria, and Romania.
The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border came amid stepped-up violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east and prompted the West to urge Moscow to pull its forces back.
The United States and NATO have said that the buildup was the largest since 2014, when Russia forcibly seized Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Crimea maneuvers included the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on April 22, with fighter jets providing air cover for the operation.
Shoigu oversaw the exercise flying in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea.
Russia last week announced the closing of large areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November, prompting protests from Ukraine and raising Western concerns.
Moscow also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with international law.
Moscow also warned Kyiv against trying to retake by force territory controlled by separatists in the east of the country, where more than 13,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2014, saying that Russia could step in to protect civilians in the region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an order on April 21 allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization.