Russia’s defence ministry says it has started withdrawing troops and military units from annexed Crimea to their permanent bases, following a huge build-up near Ukraine’s border that had raised concerns in Kyiv and the West about the risk of war.
A day earlier, on Thursday, Moscow announced it had completed a “snap inspection” of military drills in its south and west after weeks of tensions with the West over its concentration of thousands of troops near Ukraine.
Ukraine gave a guarded welcome to the troop drawdown.
“If Russia really pulls back from the border with Ukraine the enormous military force it has deployed there, this will already ease tensions,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement on Friday.
“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.”
Washington has said it is waiting to see what actions follow Moscow’s announcement and it will “continue to watch very closely”.
The Russian military had not publicly declared the number of additional troops that it moved, but the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell claimed, after EU foreign ministers were briefed by Ukraine’s foreign minister, that the number was higher than 100,000.
NATO and the United States – the leading member of the transatlantic security alliance – have said that the build-up was Russia’s largest since March 2014, when Moscow seized Crimea from Kyiv, and for weeks have called for the forces to be pulled back.
Moscow has repeatedly dismissed Ukrainian and Western concerns about the build-up, maintaining that it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on Russian territory.
The Kremlin has also routinely denied playing any role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, Russia said troops from its southern military district and airborne troops that took part in the snap inspection were beginning to rebase.
It said that military units and formations were marching to railway loading stations and airfields.
It aired footage of armoured vehicles boarding landing ships on a beach and other military vehicles being loaded onto trains. Soldiers were shown marching onto a military aircraft.
A confirmed pullout of the troops brought in on top of the permanent contingent will likely be welcomed by the Western countries which had been expressing alarm.
Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government in the region since 2014.