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Russian minister orders partial pullback from Ukraine border region

A Ukrainian serviceman looked through a periscope at his position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, not far from Donetsk, on Thursday. Russia's Defense Ministry ordered an end to military drills near Ukraine's border involving tens of thousands of troops that had exacerbated tensions with the West. The Ukrainian president welcomed the move, saying it reduced tensions after weeks of renewed fighting.
A Ukrainian serviceman looked through a periscope at his position on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, not far from Donetsk, on Thursday. Russia's Defense Ministry ordered an end to military drills near Ukraine's border involving tens of thousands of troops that had exacerbated tensions with the West. The Ukrainian president welcomed the move, saying it reduced tensions after weeks of renewed fighting.ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

MOSCOW — Russia’s Defense Ministry ordered a partial pullback of troops from the border with Ukraine on Thursday, signaling a possible deescalation in a military standoff that had raised alarm that a new war in Europe could be looming.

The order came a day after President Vladimir Putin, in an annual state of the nation address, rattled off a list of grievances against Western nations, including threats of new sanctions. Putin warned against crossing a Russian “red line” with additional pressure on Moscow. The huge buildup on the Ukrainian border was in place while he spoke.

That mobilization had increasingly worried the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European capitals, and Washington, and was seen as an early foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration.

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The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who had called the buildup a test of the Russian military’s readiness, said that the units deployed to the border area had shown their capabilities and should now return to their regular positions.

“I think the goals of the readiness test are achieved fully,” Shoigu said, according to the official Russian news agency Tass, which reported that he had ordered troops from central Russia and Siberia to return to their barracks by May 1.

However, the order specified that troops departing from one large field camp about 100 miles from the border with the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbas should leave their armored vehicles there until the fall. Satellite images had shown hundreds of trucks and tanks parked in fields in the area.

Shoigu’s announcement made no mention of naval exercises currently underway in the Black Sea near the Ukrainian coast. The Russian Ministry of Defense has said about 10,000 soldiers, more than 60 ships, and more than 1,000 airplanes, amphibious vehicles, and other pieces of military equipment are deployed for the exercises.

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A Russian ban on civilian air traffic near the Ukrainian border until Saturday also remained in effect Thursday.

Soon after Shoigu’s announcement, Ukraine’s president — who only two days earlier addressed his nation on television, warning of the possibility of war — said he welcomed Russia’s move.

“The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Twitter.

Ukraine, he added, “is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence” and “deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace.”

Ukraine, a vast country in Eastern Europe that was once part of the Soviet Union, has been a flash point of East-West tensions for many years. Efforts by Ukraine’s government to align itself with the West have deeply angered the Kremlin, which sees Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the region.

The tensions have been elevated since 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict between Ukrainian forces and separatists has killed more than 13,000 people, and increased violations of a cease-fire there preceded the Russian military buildup.

In Ukraine, many had feared that the buildup — which officials in Kyiv said included some 110,000 Russian troops — could be the prelude to a Russian annexation of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine or an outright invasion.

For the moment, at least, the withdrawal announcement signaled that such a move was not imminent. But Ukrainian officials said they continued to be prepared for an escalation of the conflict.

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“Their position on Ukraine is not changing,” Zelensky’s national security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, said in an interview Thursday, referring to Russia. “They want to bring back the empire, in those borders that existed in the previous century.”

Throughout the buildup, Russian officials never formally stated specific demands, even as tanks accumulated on the border. Analysts suggested they sought concessions in settlement talks with Ukraine or hoped to dissuade the Biden administration from imposing sanctions.

But the withdrawal began without Ukrainian concessions and despite new US sanctions, announced last week.

“They didn’t get any obvious concessions from Ukraine and they didn’t get any obvious concessions from the West,” Sam Greene, director of the Russian Institute at Kings College London, said in a telephone interview. “They didn’t achieve very much, on the face of it. They did show they were willing to make a lot of people very nervous.”

By Thursday evening, Putin’s attention had shifted to another post-Soviet Eastern European country in which Moscow seeks to retain its influence: Belarus. The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, flew to Moscow for talks with Putin that the Kremlin said would last “late into the evening” Thursday.

With Putin’s support, Lukashenko has brutally put down protests in his country since last summer, when he claimed victory in a reelection that critics and Western officials said was blatantly rigged. In his state-of-the-nation speech Wednesday, Putin claimed that Western countries had plotted to assassinate Lukashenko.