Russian troops, which had been deployed for drills near the border with Ukraine, are starting to move back to their permanent bases. President Putin says it is a gesture aimed at providing “benign conditions” for the Ukrainian presidential election.
The troops, which had been deployed to the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk Regions “have completed the dismantling of field camps and training equipment, the loading of the material and preparation of the hardware for the march, and are now commencing the movement to railway stations and airstrips,” the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday in a statement.
“All the units which were involved in performing scheduled combat training exercises in remote areas will return to their permanent stations by the beginning of summer,” the ministry added.
The statement said the decisions to conduct the training in remote areas near Ukrainian border and make them more intensive than previous similar events was justified, considering the good results shown by the troops.
Footage from the scene showed the Russian military packing and leaving the area.
The order to send the Russian troops home came on Monday from President Vladimir Putin. On Wednesday he commented on the development, saying that it is aimed at “creating additional benign conditions over the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine, to prevent any possible speculation.”
Putin stressed that this was a gesture of goodwill rather than Russia bending to the pressure.
“We keep our troops wherever we want,” he said.
The military presence close to Ukraine has been a source of constant tension between Russia and the West, particularly NATO. They have been calling on Moscow to pull back the troops to de-escalate tension in Ukraine and accused Russia of secretly trying to derail the election.
The calls prompted irritated comments from Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov earlier on Tuesday, who gave voice to Russian generals’ displeasure over being lectured on what they should do inside Russia.
“Could anyone explain me, taking our tanks how many kilometers from the border would be enough for you to say, ‘OK, we are satisfied’? Five kilometers, 10, a hundred?” he lashed out.
The comments came after several occasions in which Russia announced it was moving the troops further from the border, with Western military responding that they have not seen evidence of Russia doing so.
The latest statement to that effect came early on Wednesday from an anonymous source in NATO, which said "We still have not seen any evidence of a Russian withdrawal of troops from the Ukraine border area."
US Army Secretary John McHugh spoke along the same lines.
"What we know thus far is that there has been certain troop movements, but I have received no confirmation, either through Pentagon sources or NATO sources, that there has been a wholesale repositioning of those troops off the border," McHugh said.
NATO’s failure to spot the movements of the Russian troops called for a comment from Putin, who said “if the weather is fine, they will see it from space.”
“If somebody cannot see what is happening, let him watch closer,” he added.