Russia has lambasted “unfounded accusations” by the US and NATO that it was not withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border, saying it will take time to draw to a close the current military exercises.
The Kremlin has announced a partial withdrawal of its forces, but the West claims that the presence of Russian military forces is growing, not diminishing.
On Thursday, Moscow said the withdrawal of forces could not be carried out in a short time.
"It's clear the grouping for the (military) exercises was built up over many weeks, and it is of course impossible to withdraw it in a single day. They can't just take off and fly away... it takes time,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
He said Russia's Defense Ministry has a clear timetable for the return of units to their permanent bases.
Russia and NATO have been at odds over Ukraine. Western countries accuse Russia of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine by massing 100,000 troops and armaments near the border with that country. Rejecting the allegation, Moscow says the troop build-up is defensive as NATO has increased its activity near Russian borders.
Back in December, Moscow asked NATO not to allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join the Western military alliance. It called on the alliance to stop its military deployments to Ukraine and to roll back its forces from Eastern Europe, demanding legally binding guarantees. The West has flatly rejected the demands, emphasizing that NATO membership would remain open to Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that the US is deliberately designing a scenario to lure Russia into a war over Ukraine. The Kremlin has also reiterated that the expansion of the NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine constitutes a red line for Moscow and that any future expansion must exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet countries.
In his remarks on Thursday, Peskov said Moscow is seriously concerned about a flare-up in violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region between Ukrainian government forces and ethnic Russians. Russia, he said, is monitoring the situation closely.
Since 2014, Ukraine’s two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk - collectively known as the Donbass - were turned into self-proclaimed republics by ethnic Russians, leading to a bloody conflict between government forces and armed separatists.
Ukraine, as well as the European Union and the US, claim that Russia has a hand in the Donbass conflict that has so far killed more than 14,000 people. Moscow denies the allegation.
The armed conflict began when a wave of protests in Ukraine overthrew a democratically-elected pro-Russia government and replaced it with a pro-West administration. The majority in those areas refused to endorse the new administration.
On Thursday, ethnic Russians and Kiev traded accusations that each had fired across the ceasefire line.
Moscow declares fresh military withdrawal from Crimea
Separately on Thursday, Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement that a new drawdown of military forces was underway in Crimea.
“Units of the southern military district that ended tactical exercises at training grounds on the Crimean Peninsula are returning by rail to their permanent bases,” the ministry said.
Russia’s state-run television also showed columns of military hardware crossing a recently-constructed bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland.
Crimea declared independence from Ukraine on March 17, 2014 and formally applied to become part of Russia following a referendum a day earlier. Moscow defends Crimea’s reunification with Russia as legitimate, saying more than 90 percent of the people in the Black Sea peninsula voted in favor of rejoining the country in the 2014 vote.
The West brands the reunification as the annexation of the Ukrainian land by Russia, which strongly rejects the allegation.
In siding with Ukraine, the European Union has followed Washington's lead in imposing several rounds of sanctions against Moscow.
Russia, Belarus to end military drills as planned
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday said Russia and neighboring Belarus would end their joint military drills on February 20 as previously planned, addressing Western concerns that Russian troops might stay in Belarus for a longer time.
Peskov, for his part, said the matter of extending Russian troops’ stay in Belarus was not on the agenda.
Earlier, Peskov said NATO suffered from a “handicap” that prevented it from “soberly assessing the situation.”
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