Russia to pull troops back from Ukraine border, easing tensions
Russia said it will begin pulling thousands of troops back from areas near the Ukrainian border starting Friday, in a step that could calm strains with the West that have surged in recent weeks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the move, saying in a tweet it "reduces tension."
The ruble gained as much as 1.4% against the dollar and the cost of insuring Russian debt against default fell the most in 10 months after the news. The Russian currency had slipped amid fears the conflict could bring new Western sanctions. Ukraine's hryvnia rose to the highest level since April 14.
The military units will return to their bases by May 1, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday in Crimea, where he's on a visit to review maneuvers.
"The goals of these surprise checks were fulfilled completely. The forces showed their ability to reliably defend the country," he told commanders, announcing the end of the operation. "The military activity of NATO in this region has significantly increased," Shoigu noted, according to a ministry press release.
Western officials say Russia moved as many as 100,000 troops, as well as tanks, warplanes and other equipment, to areas near the border with Ukraine in recent weeks, the largest such buildup in years. The U.S. and its European allies called on the Kremlin to pull the forces back but Moscow said it's free to deploy its military wherever needed on its territory.
"Moscow thinks that it got its message across," said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. "There's been some de-escalation and now the confrontation has returned to the political and diplomatic sphere."
To be sure, there was no immediate sign the withdrawal would take place as announced and Russia has changed plans for deployments on short notice in the past. Adding to the uncertainty, the Defense Ministry said it would leave the tanks and other equipment of one of the major units in the area near the border ahead of exercises planned for the fall.
Amid the crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin to appeal to the Russian leader to reduce tensions, offering the prospect of a summit meeting later this year, a gesture welcomed in Moscow.
Russia denied its buildup was a threat to Ukraine but the Kremlin had charged the government in Kyiv with planning an assault on Donbas separatist regions in the east of the country that are backed by Moscow. The Ukrainian government rejected those claims and accused Moscow of planning a military incursion of its own.
As recently as Tuesday, Shoigu had accused Ukraine of seeking to destabilize the Donbas and said the troop buildup was a response to threats from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On April 13, he said the exercises would end within two weeks.
On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the situation "extremely tense and very worrying as a result of the concentration of forces on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border." She and other western leaders had repeatedly appealed to the Kremlin to de-escalate.
Putin on Wednesday warned the West against crossing Russia's "red line" but his spokesman Thursday declined to specify where that line lies with regard to Ukraine.