Russia says troop pullback from Ukraine border has begun

Ilya Arkhipov

Russia said it began pulling thousands of troops back from areas near the Ukrainian border Friday, in a move that could ease tensions that have spiked in recent weeks.

The Defense Ministry released video on Twitter it said showed the troops returning to their bases and the Black Sea Fleet later reported that its ships had also been redeployed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed Russia’s announcement of the move Thursday. U.S. officials, who have repeatedly called on Russia to remove the troops, said they were waiting for confirmation the pullback takes place.

This handout photo taken from a video released on Friday, April 23, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian airborne troops get on a plane after drills in Crimea.

The ruble rose beyond 75 per dollar early Friday, the highest level since March, continuing a rally that began when Russia announced the planned pullback, easing fears the tensions could lead to new sanctions.

Russia’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops, as well as tanks, warplanes and warships, to Crimea and other areas near the Ukrainian border over the last month had raised fears the Kremlin might be planning another attack on its neighbor. For weeks, Moscow rejected calls from Kyiv and its western allies to de-escalate, driving tensions to the highest levels in years. Russia said the troops were in the area for maneuvers.

Concerns remain about how complete the action will be and whether tensions could flare again. Russia said the pullback will be completed by May 1 but it will leave the equipment, including tanks, of one of the units involved in the maneuvers in the area near the border ahead of training operations set for the fall.

“If Russia really pulls back huge army forces from the border with Ukraine, it will ease tension. But this step doesn’t cease either escalation or the conflict,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday in comments on the ministry website.

This handout photo taken from a video released on Friday, April 23, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian military's armored vehicles roll into landing vessels after drills in Crimea.

European Union spokeman Peter Stano said, “We will be watching closely the withdrawal of troops and the military equipment, which were amassed recently on Ukraine’s borders and in illegally-annexed Crimea.”

The reaction in Western capitals was also cautious.

“While the Russian troop pullout is a move in the right direction, yesterday’s announcement doesn’t change anything about the need to have an analysis of the causes that lead to this very tense situation and to identify measures for de-escalation in the future,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said at a press conference Friday in Bucharest.

“We’ll be looking for follow-through in terms of what the Russians actually do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said “We obviously want to de-escalate tensions not only in the relationship, but certainly at the border.”

Amid the crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden called Putin to appeal to the Russian leader to reduce tensions, offering the prospect of a summit meeting later this year, a gesture the Kremlin welcomed.

“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.”

Russia denied its buildup was a threat to Ukraine but the Kremlin had charged the government in Kyiv with planning an assault on the Donbas. The Ukrainian government rejected those claims and accused Moscow of planning a military incursion of its own.