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Russia to end military buildup near Ukraine's border by May

Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu (R) and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov (L) attend Thursday Russian military exercise at the at Opuk range in Crimea. Photo by Vadim Savitsky/EPA-EFE/Handout
Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu (R) and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov (L) attend Thursday Russian military exercise at the at Opuk range in Crimea. Photo by Vadim Savitsky/EPA-EFE/Handout

April 22 (UPI) -- Russia will end its military buildup for exercises near Ukraine's eastern border by May, an official said Thursday.

Goals of the Southern Military Districts and Airborne Forces in surprise checks in the southern and western military districts of Russia near the border with Ukraine "have been fully achieved," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a meeting Thursday in Crimea, according to state media.

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"The troops have demonstrated the ability to ensure reliable defense of the country," Shoigu added.

Shoigu said the military had until May 1 to return from the military exercises and should start planning the return of troops Friday, including noting results of the surprise check and placing equipment in field parks at the Pogonovo training ground to be used in the Zapad-2021 military drills to take place in September.

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"By May 1, 2021, return the personnel of the 58th Army of the Southern Military District, the 41st Army of the Central Military District, the 7th, the 76th Airborne Assault and 98th Airborne Divisions of the airborne troops to their permanent deployment points," Shoigu ordered.

The military buildup of troops and equipment near the border of eastern Ukraine and annexed territory of Crimea appeared to measure the response of Ukraine, the United States and Europe, Axios reported.

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U.S. President Joe Biden raised concerns about tensions escalating with the military buildup on a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, citing the United States' "unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," according to a readout of the call.

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Still, Biden canceled deployment of warships to the Black Sea and Europe's response was more muted, according to Axios.

Meanwhile, fears of a potential threat of Russian invasion created a national unity in Ukraine and strengthened Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's position, Davyd Arakhamia, leader of the president's party in parliament, told Axios.

"The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension," Zelensky tweeted Thursday. "Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence and deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support."

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Ned Price, the U.S. State Department spokesman, told reporters during a press conference Thursday that they will continue to monitor the situation.

"We've heard words. I think what we'll be looking for is action," he said.

The announcement of the withdrawal follows the United States and the European Union expressing deep concern about Russia amassing upward of 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and within annexed Crimea as well as its plan to block foreign vessels from parts of the Black Sea.

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"Our message is we've heard the announcement," Price said. "We'll be watching closely for that follow-through."

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