After a month-long military build-up Russia has announced it will begin to withdraw its forces from the Ukrainian border. The build-up, which Russia has claimed is part of military inspections and exercises, prompted worries of a further escalation in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. 

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that “the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide credible defence for the country”. 

Although a troop withdrawal has been announced, equipment has been left behind as another military exercise has been scheduled to take place later in the year. The Russia-Belarussian Zapad-2021 strategic military exercises are due to take place in September according to Russia’s state news agency Tass. 

The military exercises consisted off Air, Ground, and Naval units. As part of the exercises, Russia imposed no fly zones over parts of the black sea in order to conduct convoy protection and surface attack drills.

Russia has also closed off sections of the black sea to passage by foreign vessels between 24 April and 31 October. This includes the Kerch straight, which connects the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk to the wider black sea. 

The build-up prompted tension between Russia and Ukraine, as well as with the US. The US has called it the largest build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border since 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that an estimated 120,000 troops had been built up on the border, split between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky invited Russia’s President Putin to meet in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine where a war has been occurring since 2014. He said, “I am ready to go even further and invite you to meet in any part of the Ukrainian Donbass where war is ongoing”.

In a state of the nation address, Putin said “if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”

The troop build-up first gained attention when videos emerged on social media of trains loaded with Russian equipment moving towards the Russian occupied Crimean Peninsula and passing through Rostov-on-Don which is located on the Black Sea near the Ukrainian border. 

The equipment included T-72 main battle tanks, self-propelled artillery, BTRs and other logistical equipment. The Russian navy also increased its presence in the black sea, with amphibious landing vessels from the Baltic and Northern fleets entering the Black Sea earlier this week. 

Satellite imagery also revealed new Russian forces have been moved into the region. The Wall Street Journal posted images of Satellite imagery showing “SU-30 fighters lined up on a runway at an airbase in Crimea”. They had not been there in previous imagery from late March.

The Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian open source intelligence group, reported that new camps being set up in the Voronezh region that borders Ukraine. Satellite imagery revealed hundreds of military vehicles being parked up in newly created camps. 

The build-up came at a time when a July 2020 ceasefire signed to stop the war in the Donbass expired, and an intensification of fighting between both sides. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) announced earlier last month that it was conscripting citizens born between 1994-2003. 

With Russian troops moving to the border, and a ceasefire not renewing, Ukraine’s President called on Nato to speed up Ukraine’s pathway onto membership status, with the prospect of joining “the only way to end the war in Donbass”. He also signed a law allowing reservists to be called up without announcing a mobilization.

Russia had previously warned that it would intervene to help the breakaway republics if Ukraine launched an assault on the areas and that they would “defend” Russian citizens. 

The build-up also comes at a time of tension in US-Russian relations. The US has recently tightened sanctions against Russia after the Czech Republic accused Russia of being behind the explosion of an ammunition dump in 2014, prompting an exchange of expelling each other’s diplomats. The same occurred between Russia and the US and Poland.

Over 14,000 people have been killed in the war that started in 2014.

Image Credit: President of Russia

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