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Russia orders troops back to base after massive military drills in Crimea

Russian military vehicles ready for loading onto plane
Russian military vehicles are prepared for loading onto a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Crimea.
(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Russia’s defense minister Thursday ordered troops back to their permanent bases after massive drills in Crimea that involved dozens of navy ships, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of personnel in a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine.

After watching the drills, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the maneuvers over and ordered the military to pull the troops taking part in the maneuvers in Crimea and western Russia back to their bases.

“I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,” Shoigu said. “The troops have shown their defense capability, and I decided to complete the drills in the South and Western military districts.”

He said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he also ordered that heavy weapons remain deployed to western Russia for another massive military exercise later this year.

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Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern region of Voronezh. The sprawling range is about 100 miles east of the border with Ukraine.

The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, which came amid increasing violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east, has raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.

President Biden spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom he recently labeled a “killer,” and said the U.S. would act firmly to defend its interests.

The Russian military hasn’t reported the number of additional troops that were moved to Crimea and parts of southwestern Russia near Ukraine, and it wasn’t immediately clear from Shoigu’s statement if all of them will now be pulled back.

The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have said that the buildup near Ukraine was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 10,000 troops, along with more than 60 ships, about 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles.

The exercise featured the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles Thursday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow will order 10 American diplomats to leave Russia in retaliation against new U.S. sanctions.

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Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to oversee the exercise. He later declared the drills over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise.

Last week, Russia announced that it would close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign naval ships and state vessels until November, a move that drew Ukrainian protests and raised Western concerns. Moscow also announced flight restrictions near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with international law.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned Tuesday that the Russian buildup across the border was continuing and was “expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops” in about a week, and urged the West to beef up sanctions against Moscow.

Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the buildup, arguing that Russia is free to deploy forces anywhere in its own territory and contending that they don’t threaten anyone. But at the same time, the Kremlin sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, where seven years of fighting have killed more than 14,000 people.

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Amid the tensions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday signed a law allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization. The new law will allow Ukraine to quickly equip the military with reservists, “significantly increasing their combat effectiveness during military aggression,” Zelensky’s office said in a statement.


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