Vladimir Putin has signalled Russia will start pulling back troops after carrying out huge military drills in Crimea today involving 10,000 soldiers, 40 warships and 200 planes.
Ukraine remained wary of its adversary which has massed more than 100,000 troops on its border over the last few weeks.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said he ‘welcomed’ Russia’s withdrawal but that Kiev would remain vigilant.
‘The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,’ Zelenskiy tweeted. ‘Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbass.’
Pro-Kremlin media announced that the top brass were ordering troops back to their permanent bases, however it was unclear whether this meant the entire force along the frontier, or just those involved in today’s drills on the Black Sea peninsula.
The withdrawal of forces comes just hours after Putin defiantly warned the West not to ‘dare cross the red line’ of attempting to interfere or provoke troops stationed in Russian territory.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew over Crimea in a helicopter today to personally oversee the mock invasion involving thousands of soldiers, paratroopers, gunboats and landing craft.
‘I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,’ Shoigu said. ‘The troops have shown their defence capability and I decided to complete the drills in the south and western military districts.’
But, he stressed Russian was on its guard over NATO activity in eastern Europe.
Russia would ‘respond appropriately to all changes in the situation near the Russian borders’, he added.
He said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he also ordered keeping the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills for another massive military exercise later this year.
The manoeuvres are part of a show of force that were described as the largest since Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and threw its weight behind separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine
The exercise comes amid increasing violations of a ceasefire in Ukraine’s east and a massive Russian troops build-up on the border with Ukraine that raised Western concerns
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military must be ready to react rapidly to ‘unfavourable’ developments in the situation around NATOs Defender Europe drills taking place in the Balkan and Black Sea region
The NATO Defender Europe exercises started in mid-March and will continue into mid-June. Some of the drills are taking place in the Balkan and Black Sea region
Defence Minister Shoigu flew by helicopter over the Opuk firing range, where troops and military equipment are deployed, and checked the readiness of the naval and ground forces
Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the south-western Voronezh region. The sprawling range is located around 100 miles east of the border with Ukraine.
The Russian troop build-up near Ukraine that came amid increasing violations of a ceasefire in Donbass has raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.
Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range to watch the exercise, that saw amphibious landings on beaches in a mock invasion as destroyers loosed off shells from their positions in the Black Sea.
He later declared the drills over, but ordered the military to stand ready to respond to any ‘adverse developments’ during Nato’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise.
The Nato drills began in March and are to last until June.
‘Nato has significantly intensified its military activities in the region,’ Shoigu said.
‘Intelligence gathering has increased and the intensity and scope of operational training has been growing. One of the alliance’s main coalition groups is being deployed in the Black Sea region.’
Russia has long bristled at the deployment of Nato’s forces near its borders and stepped up its drills as relations with the West have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the annexation of Crimea, Russian meddling in elections, hacking attacks and other issues.
Last week, Russia announced that it would close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy and state vessels until November, a move that drew Ukrainian protests and raised Western concerns.
Russia also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with the international law.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on Tuesday that the Russian build-up across the border is continuing and is ‘expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops’ in about a week and urged the West to beef up sanctions against Moscow.
Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the build-up, arguing that it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on the Russian territory and claiming that they do not threaten anyone.
But at the same time, the Kremlin sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, where seven years of fighting have killed more than 14,000 people, saying that Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.
Thousands of troops were deployed to the Crimean peninsula in preparation for massive military drills on Thursday
Troops were seen heavily armed during the huge military drills in the Crimean peninsula on Thursday. The manoeuvres had sparked intense concern in Kyiv and the West
An estimated 1,200 military vehicles were seen in use during massive drills involved multiple sections of the Russian armed forces
Helicopters were seen circling over the training area in the Crimean peninsula as part of mass military drills being held on Thursday
Defence Minister Shoigu told troops they had to be ready for a rapid reaction to changes in the NATO Defender Europe exercises taking place at the moment
Putin has signalled plans to pull back from the Ukrainian border following Thursday’s massive war games, which involved warships transporting tanks to the shores
Warships are seen close to shore, delivering tanks and troops onto the beaches ready for massive military drills in the Crimea on Thursday
An announcement said that from Friday ‘troops of the Southern and Western Military Districts, the Airborne Forces will begin to return from the southern borders of the Russian Federation to the points of permanent deployment’
The show of military might by Russian President Vladimir Putin comes amid soaring tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the West
Russia is staging huge military drills involving 10,000 troops and 40 warships in Crimea after Vladimir Putin warned the West not to ‘dare cross any red lines’ amid soaring tensions with Ukraine
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu travelled to the peninsula on Thursday to oversee the colossal war games involving Russia’s southern military district and paratroopers close to Ukraine (pictured, tanks take part in the drills)
Warships were also seen taking part in the massive military drills in the Crimea amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Putin dispatched at least 20 warships and 50 fighter jets to carry out live fire drills in the Black sea earlier this week
Thursday’s massive drills comes as Putin gave a very real warning to the West on Wednesday, saying Moscow’s response to any encroachment on its territory will be ‘quick and tough’
Tens of helicopters were deployed in the massive Russian war games in the Crimea on Thursday. Helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks were also apparently used in the drills after being prepared for the simulated battle on Wednesday
Nato says that Putin has more than 100,000 troops now massed on the Ukrainian border, in addition to 20 warships in the Black Sea which threaten to cut off vital Ukrainian ports
And while Kiev and Nato have raised alarm over the very real Russian force of more than 100,000 soldiers at the Ukrainian border, an inflatable army this week appeared outside Moscow.
The helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks were proudly displayed by the defence ministry ahead of military exercises where the decoys will be deployed to fool enemy drones and satellites.
The tactic was famously used by Winston Churchill who created a fictitious base teeming with tanks in the southeast of England before D-Day to dupe the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were planning a second invasion to follow the Normandy landings.
The Kremlin has recruited Rusbal, a toy company founded by a hot air balloon enthusiast, to assemble the decoys. The firm states that the cost of fooling the enemy is a fraction the price of buying the legitimate hardware.
‘Tanks, aviation and air defence systems were moved to Moscow region so that ‘an enemy’ had a chance not only to find a hidden aerodrome, but to obtain satellite pictures, too,’ said a report from the defence ministry’s own TV channel, Zvezda.
It shows the 45th engineer-camouflage regiment ‘armed with the most unusual equipment of the Russian army’.
Among the armoury is what looks like a MiG-31 and Su-27 fighters under the cover of an anti-aircraft missile system at a mock covert airfield in the forest.
The army says: ‘The inflatable equipment is nearly identical to the original thanks to the use of special materials.
‘It also has the same radiation background so that an enemy does not notice the deception. The decoys can be created within minutes.’
It comes as Putin gave a very real warning to the West on Wednesday, saying Moscow’s response to any encroachment on its territory will be ‘quick and tough.’
Putin lashed out at Nato and the U.S. during his annual state-of-the-nation address following weeks of ratcheting tension on the Ukrainian border where thousands of troops and tanks have been stationed.
Thursday’s military drills come amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over allegations Putin has massed troops and weapons on the border with Ukraine
Tens of tanks and their personnel lined up ready for the massive war game simulation in the Crimea on Thursday
Washington and its allies have urged the Kremlin to pull the troops back, but Putin pressed ahead with plans for the massive military drills being held today in the Crimea
The helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks are intended to fool enemy drones or satellites carrying out reconnaissance (pictured: a tank in the process of being blown up)
The blow up models are made to appear like full-sized versions of MiG fighter jets and Russian military systems. The Kremlin has recruited Rusbal, a toy company founded by a hot air balloon enthusiast, to assemble his decoys. The firm states proudly that the cost of fooling the enemy is a fraction the price of being the legitimate hardware.
Washington and its allies have urged the Kremlin to pull the troops back, but Putin has pressed ahead, even dispatching 20 warships and 50 fighter jets to carry out live fire drills in the Black sea this week.
‘I hope that no one dares to cross the red line in respect to Russia, and we will determine where it is in each specific case,’ Putin said.
‘Those who organize any provocations threatening our core security interests will regret their deeds more than they regretted anything for a long time.’
They have even gone as far as to design barracks-style structures to make it appear as if a large number of infantry are accommodated at the decoy base. The tactic was famously deployed by Winston Churchill who created a fictitious base teeming with tanks in the southeast of England before D-Day to dupe the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were planning a second invasion to follow the Normandy landings.
A decoy missiles-launching truck after it has been blown up, from the air they appear to be genuine
A snow-camouflaged truck was shown off the report which featured on the defence ministry’s own outlet. ‘Tanks, aviation and air defence systems were moved to Moscow region so that ‘an enemy’ had a chance not only to find a hidden aerodrome, but to obtain satellite pictures, too,’ said the broadcast
Decoy missile launching trucks as part of the fake force assembled outside Moscow
A soldier is seen using a motorised pump to blow up one of the inflatable vehicles
Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the troop buildup, saying it doesn’t threaten anyone and that Russia is free to deploy its forces on its territory.
But the Kremlin also has warned Ukraine against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel-held east, saying Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.
‘We really don’t want to burn the bridges,’ Putin said. ‘But if some mistake our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intend to burn or even blow up those bridges themselves, Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, quick and tough.’
As Putin spoke, a wave of protests started rolling across Russia in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and a human rights group said nearly 1,500 people were arrested.
An inflatable missile-bearing truck is seen as soldiers stand guard in the forest outside Moscow
One of the missile systems seen from above, still visible a decoy, but at hundreds of feet the difference between the real thing is supposed to be imperceptible
Thousands marched in central Moscow, where police blocked off a square next to the Kremlin. Police in St. Petersburg blocked off Palace Square, outside the Hermitage museum, and protesters instead massed along Nevsky Prospekt.
The politician, who is Putin’s most persistent critic and was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent last year, started a hunger strike three weeks ago to protest what he said was inadequate medical treatment and officials’ refusal to allow his doctor to visit him. His supporters called the rallies as his health reportedly is in severe decline.
In his speech, Putin pointed to Russia’s moves to modernize its nuclear arsenal and said the military would continue to build more state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles and other new weapons.
He added that the development of the nuclear-armed Poseidon underwater drone and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile is continuing successfully.
In an apparent reference to the U.S. and its allies, the Russian leader denounced those who impose ‘unlawful, politically motivated economic sanctions and crude attempts to enforce its will on others.’
Two inflatable tanks are seen covered in snow, making it even more difficult to tell the decoys from the real thing
An inflatable tank is held aloft in southeast England in 1939. Churchill came up with the plan to create the fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG), to dupe the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were planning a colossal invasion around Calais, when, in fact, all of its forces were being thrown at Normandy on D-Day
He said Russia has shown restraint and often refrained from responding to ‘openly boorish’ actions by others.
The Biden administration last week imposed new sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied.
The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and individuals, and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.
Russia retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials, and tightening requirements for U.S. Embassy operations.
‘Russia has its own interests, which we will defend in line with the international law,’ Putin said during Wednesday’s address.
‘If somebody refuses to understand this obvious thing, is reluctant to conduct a dialogue and chooses a selfish and arrogant tone, Russia will always find a way to defend its position.’
In an emotional outburst, Putin chastised the West for acquiring a defiant stance toward Russia.
‘Some countries have developed a nasty habit of bullying Russia for any reason or without any reason at all. It has become a new sport,’ he said.
A Ukrainian soldier with a pair of binoculars and a Kalashnikov stands watch in a trench in Horlivka near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk on Wednesday
A soldier at a Ukrainian dugout close to the frontline of rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine
In an apparent reference to the U.S. allies, he compared them to Tabaqui, a cowardly golden jackal kowtowing to Shere Khan, the tiger in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book.’
‘They howl to please their lord,’ he said.
Russia this week engaged in a tense tug-of-war with the Czech Republic, following Prague’s move to expel 18 Russian diplomats over a massive Czech ammunition depot explosion in 2014.
Moscow has dismissed the Czech accusations of its involvement in the blast as absurd and retaliated by expelling 20 Czech diplomats.
Putin also harshly criticised the West for failing to condemn what he described as a botched coup attempt and a failed plot to assassinate Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, allegedly involving a blockade of the country’s capital, power cuts and cyberattacks.
Belarusian and Russian security agencies arrested the alleged coup plotters in Moscow earlier this month.
‘The practice of organizing coups and planning political assassinations of top officials goes over the top and crosses all boundaries,’ Putin said, drawing parallels to plots against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the popular protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s former Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014.
A pro-Russian member of the Luhansk People’s Republic points a weapons close to the line of separation on Wednesday
A militant of the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) is reflected in a mirror at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in Luhansk Region, Ukraine April 21
Russia responded to Yanukovych’s ouster by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its support to the separatists in the country’s east. Since then, fighting there has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated the industrial heartland.
Putin dedicated most of his annual address to domestic issues, hailing the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said the quick development of three coronavirus vaccines underlined Russia’s technological and industrial potential. He called for a quicker pace of immunizations, voicing hope the country could achieve collective immunity this fall.
He put forward incentives to help the economy recover from the pandemic and promised new social payments focusing on families with children.
On Tuesday Putin staged dramatic naval drills in the Black Sea involving more than 20 warships and 50 fighter jets
The Admiral Essen on Tuesday launched cruise missiles as part of exercises which saw some 50 warplanes involved in major exercises in the Black Sea