Russia Claims Troops Withdrawing from Crimea After Drills

TOPSHOT - Russian President Vladimir Putin, surrounded by top military officers and officials, tours a military flight test centre in Akhtubinsk on May 14, 2019. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian defense ministry announced Friday it has begun withdrawing troops and equipment from Crimea, having completed a “snap inspection” and supposedly innocuous military drills.

The Ukrainian government was quite happy to see them go and a bit skeptical that they are actually leaving.

“In accordance with the instruction of Russian Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, the forces of the Southern Military District and Airborne Troops engaged in the events of sudden inspection have begun to return to their permanent stations on April 23,” said a statement from the defense ministry that Russia’s state-run Tass news agency quoted.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu pronounced himself satisfied with the performance of some 10,000 troops and 1,200 pieces of hardware dispatched to Crimea for a “sudden military inspection.”  

“I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country. In this regard, I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews,” Shoigu declared Thursday.

Shoigu reportedly ordered the ground troops back to bases in Vladikavkaz and Novosibirsk, while airborne units are returning to bases in Pskov, Ivanovo, and Krasnodar.

The Moscow Times noted “some observers have characterized Russia’s moves as military posturing,” an effort to unnerve the Ukrainians and impress the Americans with Russia’s “escalation capabilities.”

“Analysts have cast doubt on theories that Russia was planning a covert invasion of Ukraine with its visible deployment of units, which include warships, modern armor, and attack aircraft,” the Moscow Times added. 

Evidently, a good number of Russians were nervous about that very possibility, because the ruble jumped a full percentage point in value and Russian stocks surged two percent after news of the withdrawal order broke.

EuroNews dryly noted that neither Shoigu nor the Defense Ministry indicated exactly when all of Russia’s troops and hardware would return to their bases. The Defense Ministry has already announced another massive “military exercise” in a few months.

“If Russia really pulls back from the border with Ukraine the enormous military force it has deployed there, this will already ease tensions — but we need to remember that this step would put an end neither to the current escalation, nor to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in general,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday.

Kuleba has been urging Western nations to take a stronger position against Russia’s military buildup in Crimea, including asking the U.S. to give Ukraine “powerful means of electronic warfare” to counter Russian communications jamming equipment, and urging the European Union to threaten Moscow with sanctions.

The United States also responded with guarded optimism, declaring it would continue watching Russian forces in Crimea “very closely.” U.S. officials have warned Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border has become even larger than the force dispatched to seize Crimea in 2014.

“We’ve heard words. I think what we’ll be looking for is action,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday after the Russians announced their withdrawal plans.

NATO likewise said “any steps towards de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue,” but NATO forces will “continue to closely monitor Russia’s unjustified military buildup in and around Ukraine.”

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