Russia's defence minister on Thursday ordered troops back to their permanent bases following massive drills in Crimea that involved dozens of navy ships, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of troops in a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine.
After watching the drills, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu declared the maneuvers over and ordered the military to pull the troops taking part in maneuvers in Crimea and western Russia back to their permanent bases.
"I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled," Shoigu said. "The troops have shown their defense capability and I decided to complete the drills in the South and Western military districts." Shoigu said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he also ordered to keep the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills for another massive military exercise later this year.
Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region. The sprawling range is located 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.
The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that came amid increasing violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine's east has raised concerns in the West, which urged the Kremlin to pull its forces back.
The Russian military hasn't reported the number of additional troops that have been moved to Crimea and parts of southwestern Russia near Ukraine, and it wasn't immediately clear from Shoigu's statement if all of them will now be pulled back.
The U.S. and NATO has said that the Russian buildup near Ukraine was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles.
The exercise featured the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on Thursday. Fighter jets covered the airborne operation.
Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk firing range in Crimea to oversee the exercise. 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.
Last week, Russia has announced that it would close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships 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 Tuesday that the Russian buildup 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 buildup, arguing that it's free to deploy its forces anywhere on the Russian territory and charging that they don't 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, saying that Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.
Amid the tensions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday signed a law allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization.
The new law will allow to quickly equip the military with reservists, "significantly increasing their combat effectiveness during military aggression," Zelenskyy's office said in a statement.
Czechs expel more Russians, escalating spat over 2014 blast
Prague: The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered more Russian diplomats to leave the country, further escalating a fierce tug-of-war between the two nations over the alleged involvement of Russian spies in a massive ammunition depot explosion in 2014.
Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said Russia won't be allowed to have more diplomats in Prague than the Czechs currently have at their embassy in Moscow. All others have to leave by the end of May, he said.
The announcement came after Russia expelled 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday in retaliation for the Czech government's expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from the GRU and the SVR, Russia's military and foreign intelligence services.
The Czech government protested what they called Russia's "inappropriate reaction," saying it paralyzed the Czech Embassy in Moscow.
Kulhanek had given the Russian government a Thursday noon deadline to allow the return of the 20 Czech diplomats.
He warned that if the demand was not met, he would reduce the staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague to equal the number of staff members remaining at the Czech Embassy.
The minister said Russia did not give an official response.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Czech ambassador to the come to the ministry on Thursday, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
"This kind of tone is unacceptable while talking to Russia," Zakharova said.