For weeks, Russia has been inflaming tensions in Eastern Europe by building up a mighty force of some 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border. On Thursday, the Kremlin announced it had achieved what it wanted with the exercise, and ordered its army to pack up and go home.
According to BBC News, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement during a visit to Crimea, which was seized and annexed by Russia in the last major conflict in the region seven years ago. Shoigu said the plan of military “snap checks” had been achieved, and there’s nothing left for the tens of thousands of troops to do but to head back.
“The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defense for the country,” said the minister, who added that some soldiers will be ordered to return to their “permanent bases” in Russia on Friday, and the entire operation will be completed in just over a week, on May 1.
Shoigu’s announcement came immediately after Russia staged massive military exercises in Crimea on Thursday to underline a show of force on the Ukraine border that has put Kyiv and its Western allies on high alert for weeks. The defense ministry claimed the exercises involved 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, 200 aircraft, and over 1,000 military vehicles.
Shoigu oversaw the operation in a helicopter, and after his stand-down order he said the military had proven its readiness to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise—a mass U.S. Army-led war game that’s running in Europe until June.
The troop buildup caused panic in Ukraine—and, even though the withdrawal will be met with relief—Russia has displayed that it could raise a major force at the border if required. Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Wall Street Journal this week: “We don’t know whether Putin will decide to attack, but he will certainly be ready to do so.”
Last week, during a call between President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the White House said Biden had “emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” On Thursday, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Western allies to punish Moscow’s threatening behavior with new sanctions.
Later, after the withdrawal announcement, Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko said: “We are monitoring the situation.”