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Russian troops start pulling back from Ukrainian border

This handout photo taken from a video released on Friday, April 23, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian military's armored vehicles roll into landing vessels after drills in Crimea. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday ordered troops back to their permanent bases after a massive military buildup that caused Ukrainian and Western concerns. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian troops began pulling back to their permanent bases Friday after a massive buildup that has caused Ukrainian and Western concerns.

On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the sweeping maneuvers in Crimea and wide swaths of western Russia over, and ordered the military to bring the troops that took part in them back to their permanent bases by May 1.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the announcement.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that its forces that took part in the massive drills in Crimea were moving to board trains, transport aircraft and landing vessels en route to their permanent bases.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would await confirmation from Ukrainian and NATO intelligence.

“We want to see that Russian deeds match Russian words,” Kuleba said Friday during a visit to Romania.

While ordering the pullback of military personnel, Shoigu ordered their heavy weapons kept in western Russia for a massive exercise called Zapad (West) 2021 later this year. The weapons were to be stored at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region, 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Russia’s border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have said the troop buildup was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. More than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting between Ukrainian troops and the Russia-backed separatists.

The concentration of Russian troops amid increasing violations of a cease-fire in the conflict in eastern Ukraine raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.

Moscow rejected the Ukrainian and Western concerns, arguing that it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on Russian territory. But the Kremlin also sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel east, saying it could intervene to protect civilians there.

Asked if the Kremlin thinks that the Russian troop pullback could help ease tensions with the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the issues were not connected.

“It’s not an issue for Russia-U.S. relations,” Peskov said in a call with reporters. “We have said that any movement of Russian troops on Russian territory doesn’t pose any threat and doesn’t represent an escalation. Russia does what it thinks is necessary for its military organization and training of troops.”