Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu yesterday ordered an end to military drills near Ukraine involving tens of thousands of troops and dozens of warships that had exacerbated tensions with the West.
The announcement came as Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for talks in Moscow following weeks of renewed fighting in the east of Ukraine between government troops and pro-Moscow separatists.
However, Putin appeared to shoot down Zelensky’s proposal to meet in war-torn eastern Ukraine, saying that talks over the years-long conflict should be conducted directly with separatists.
Earlier that day, Shoigu oversaw drills in Moscow-annexed Crimea, saying that soldiers would begin returning to their bases yesterday.
“The troops demonstrated their ability to ensure the reliable protection of our country,” he said after flying over the Opuk firing range in a helicopter.
“I’ve made a decision to wind down the checks in the southern and western military districts,” he said, adding that the troop pullback should be completed by Saturday next week.
The West has repeatedly called on Putin to pull back troops.
On Thursday, the US said it would wait for Moscow to follow up on its announcement of an end to the military drills.
“We’ve heard the words. I think what we’ll be looking for is action,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Shoigu, who arrived in Crimea earlier in the day to oversee the drills, said that Moscow was closely watching NATO movements and would remain vigilant.
Shoigu and Russian Armed Forces Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, armed with binoculars, oversaw the drills from a viewing platform as helicopters flew overhead.
The ministry released dramatic footage of the land and sea maneuvers that showed troops practicing amphibious landings, jets streaking through the sky and infantry vehicles traversing green fields.
NATO and Zelensky welcomed Russia’s announcement, with the Ukrainian leader writing on Twitter that “the reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension.”
“Any steps towards de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue,” a NATO official said. “NATO remains vigilant, and we will continue to closely monitor Russia’s unjustified military buildup in and around Ukraine.”
In Moscow, Putin said that Zelensky was welcome in Moscow “any time.”
“If President Zelensky wants to start repairing relations, then we of course welcome it,” he said.
However, Putin also said that if Zelensky hoped to resolve problems stemming from fighting in eastern Ukraine, he should first meet with leaders of the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Zelensky earlier this week invited Putin to hold talks in Ukraine’s east, saying that millions of lives were at stake.
Timothy Ash, an emerging markets strategist at London-based Bluebay Asset Management, said that Putin was “playing games,” adding that it was hard for the Ukrainian leader to accept direct talks with separatists.
“Everyone knows this is a state versus state conflict, but Putin is trying to imply this is a civil war in Ukraine,” Ash said.
Kiev said that one more soldier had died of shrapnel wounds when “Russian armed forces” on Thursday shelled Ukraine’s positions.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine sounded the alarm over “near-unprecedented restrictions and impediments to its ability to operate,” as well as increased numbers of civilian casualties.
About 30 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of last year.
The EU earlier this week estimated the number of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border at more than 100,000.
Shoigu has described the movement of Russian troops as training exercises in response to “threatening” NATO actions.
On Thursday, Shoigu said Russia was closely watching NATO activity including the massive Defender Europe exercises from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Moscow said that about 10,000 Russian troops, and more than 40 warships and other vessels, were participating in its Crimea exercises.
Russia last week also said that it intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and other ships for six months beginning today.
Kiev has been battling separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, with the conflict claiming more than 13,00 lives.
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