Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Service members of the Russian airborne forces get wait before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes during drills at a military aerodrome in the Azov Sea port of Taganrog, Russia April 22 2021. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER

Moscow — Russia said it will begin pulling thousands of troops back from areas near the Ukrainian border starting Friday, in a step that could calm tensions with the West that have surged in recent weeks.

The rouble gained as much as 1.4% against the dollar after the news. The Russian currency had slipped amid fears the conflict could bring new Western sanctions.

The military units will return to their bases by May 1, defence minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday in Crimea, where he is on a visit to review manoeuvres.

“The goals of these surprise checks were fulfilled completely. The forces showed their ability to reliably defend the country,” he told commanders, announcing the end of the operation. “The military activity of Nato in this region has significantly increased,” Shoigu noted, according to a ministry press release.

Western officials say Russia moved as many as 100,000 troops, as well as tanks, warplanes and other equipment, to areas near the border with Ukraine in recent weeks, the largest such build-up in years. The US and its European allies have called on the Kremlin to pull the forces back but Moscow has said it is free to deploy its military wherever needed on its territory.

“Moscow thinks that it got its message across,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “There’s been some de-escalation and now the confrontation has returned to the political and diplomatic sphere.”

Amid the crisis, US President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin to appeal to the Russian leader to reduce tensions, offering the prospect of a summit meeting later this year, a gesture welcomed in Moscow.

Russia denied its build-up was a threat to Ukraine but the Kremlin had charged the government in Kyiv with planning an assault on Donbas separatist regions in the east of the country that are backed by Moscow. The Ukrainian government rejected those claims and accused Moscow of planning a military incursion of its own.

As recently as Tuesday, Shoigu had accused Ukraine of seeking to destabilise the Donbas and said the troop build-up was a response to threats from the Nato. On April 13 he said the exercises would end within two weeks.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the situation “extremely tense and very worrying as a result of the concentration of forces on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border.” She and other Western leaders had repeatedly appealed to the Kremlin to de-escalate.

Putin on Wednesday warned the West against crossing Russia’s “red line” but his spokesperson declined to specify where that line lies with regard to Ukraine.

– Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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