Russia pulls back 10,000 troops from near Ukraine in surprise de-escalation

Russia said on Saturday it was pulling back about 10,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border in an unexpected major de-escalation as it gears up for talks on Nato concessions with the United States.

The troops from the Southern Military District will return to their permanent bases after months of drills near Ukraine because they have accomplished their tasks, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.

"A stage of combat coordination of divisions, combat crews, squads at motorised units… has been completed. More than 10,000 military servicemen… will march to their permanent deployment from the territory of the combined arms’ area of drills," Interfax quoted the army as saying.

The exercises were held in several regions near Ukraine, including in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, as well as in the southern Russian regions of Rostov and Kuban, according to the report.

Russia has been amassing troops and equipment near the border with Ukraine since October, raising fears of an imminent invasion. Military analysts have said the buildup was inconsistent with regular military exercises. 

Russia Ukraine border forces slider

The Kremlin has denied any plans to send troops into Ukraine, arguing that Russian troops are free to do what they want on Russian soil.

However, Moscow has been pushing for legally binding guarantees from the West that Nato will bar Ukraine or any other eastern European country from joining the alliance and will not deploy any weapons or troops near Russia’s border.

Saturday’s surprise announcement came on the heels of Vladimir Putin saying he was looking forward to talks with US officials on a draft security agreement that outlines what he thinks Nato should do to better protect Russia.

Soldiers dressed as Father Frost (Russian Santa Clause) run an obstacle course organized by the Russian National Guard during the holiday season

Credit: Danil Aikin

However, the withdrawal represents just a fraction of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops and equipment that Western intelligence and open-source investigations have tracked as being stationed around Ukraine.

“The most concerning area is on Ukraine’s northern, north-eastern border where Central and Western Military Districts units have massed,” Robert Lee, a Russian military expert and a PhD candidate at King’s College London, said on Saturday.

“No sign they will leave, and the Southern Military District units can be returned quickly. Russia will still have an enhanced military presence.”

Russian forces around Ukraine

Earlier this week, about 1,200 paratroopers as well as tanks and other equipment held military drills in the Russia-occupied Crimea, simulating capturing territory.

Russian state media showed footage of the drills, with rockets launched at enemy positions and paratroopers landing on a training ground.

Separately, in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held a video call with 20 US senators and members of Congress to discuss the ongoing Russian military build-up.

His office said the call on Friday was meant to show that Kyiv wants to get the US more than involved in resolving the conflict with Russia.

War jitters about a renewed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, seven years after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of deadly fighting in Ukraine’s east have reached the Vatican. 

Pope Francis in a blessing to the faithful in St Peter’s Square on Christmas Day cautioned against further violence in Ukraine, urging everyone to “prevent fresh outbreaks of a long-festering conflict.”

Senior German and Russian government officials have also agreed to a rare in-person meeting next month in an effort to ease political tensions over Ukraine, a German government source said on Saturday.

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