KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s defense chief announced Thursday that the Kremlin was pulling troops back from its southern borders with Ukraine. The announcement of the drawdown potentially marks a de-escalatory turning point in a crisis that began weeks ago when Russia began massing troops by the tens of thousands on Ukraine’s borders, spurring fears in both Kyiv and across the West of a Russian invasion.
“The reaction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted Thursday in response to the Russian drawdown news.
On a visit to Crimea on Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian Defense Ministry had completed a combat readiness check of military units deployed to Russia’s south. The units will return to their permanent bases in Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts, Shoigu said.
“I believe that the surprise inspection’s goals have been achieved in full. The troops demonstrated ability to reliably defend the country. Therefore, I have made a decision to complete the inspection measures in the Southern and Western Military Districts,” Shoigu said Thursday, the Russian news site TASS reported.
The withdrawal will begin Friday and should be complete by May 1, according to Shoigu’s remarks. Shoigu touted the so-called military exercises as a successful demonstration of the Russian military’s ability to respond to “all the changes in the situation near Russia’s borders.”
“Here, in Crimea, anti-amphibious defense of the sea coastline was practiced in the course of a surprise check,” Shoigu said, according to TASS. “In the course of the drills, the personnel showed a high level of professional training.”
At the time of this article’s penning, it is not immediately clear if the Russian troop drawdown will include all units stationed in mainland Russia near Ukraine’s border — including staging areas near Voronezh, which is within a day’s drive of the Ukrainian border.
Shoigu’s Thursday remarks appeared to leave open the possibility that some Russian units deployed to Voronezh may stay in place — effectively establishing a new baseline for Russian forces within rapid striking distance of Ukraine.
“The statement is a positive evolution of this situation, but I would not count the matter as resolved,” Michael Kofman, director of the CNA Corp.’s Russia Center and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute, tweeted Thursday in response to Shoigu’s announcement.
“The next two weeks will prove telling,” Kofman said.
Nevertheless, Thursday’s news partially defuses a mounting crisis that had sparked fears of a major escalation in the ongoing, low-intensity trench war between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The specter of invasion may have lifted — for now. But in the Donbas, Ukrainian troops remain engaged in a stalemated conflict against Russian regulars and their separatist proxies that has so far killed more than 14,000 people. A Feb. 15, 2015, cease-fire deal has failed to stop the fighting.
On Thursday, a Ukrainian soldier was killed by shrapnel during what the Ukrainian armed forces described as a “bombardment” from the combined Russian-separatist camp.
“The actions of Russian invaders […] confirm that the enemy is purposefully violating the cease-fire and does not want to follow existing cease-fire agreements,” the Ukrainian military said in a statement posted to Facebook.