Russia has announced that more than 10,000 soldiers have completed a month-long exercise near Ukraine, amid Western accusations that Moscow was planning an invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the exercises of the forces of the Southern Military District were conducted in a group of southern regions including Rostov, Krasnodar and Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But the exercises also took place farther away, including in Stavropol, Astrakhan, the republics of the North Caucasus and even in the Caucasus, Russia’s ally, Armenia.
The Defense Ministry said the forces would return to their permanent bases and reserve units would be ready for the New Year holidays.
Western countries accuse Russia of massing more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine ahead of a possible winter invasion.
According to Kiev estimates, the number of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border has increased from about 93,000 in October to 104,000 now.
Russia says it is free to move its forces on its soil as it sees fit and denies it is planning a large-scale attack.
It presented the West with sweeping security demands, saying that NATO should not accept new members and seeking to prevent the United States from establishing new bases in the former Soviet republics.
Tensions reached a boiling point on Wednesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would take «appropriate retaliatory» military steps in response to what he called the «aggressive posture» of the West.
But he lowered the volume the next day, saying he saw a «positive» reaction from the United States to Russia’s security proposals, and said talks would take place next month.
A senior US official said Washington was «ready to engage in diplomacy as soon as possible in early January,» both bilaterally and through «multiple channels.»
Yesterday, a German government official said that Moscow and Berlin had agreed to hold a meeting in «early January».
German leaders Olaf Schulz and Putin agreed in a phone call on Thursday to meet between Chancellor Jens Ploetner’s diplomatic advisor and the Kremlin’s official on relations with Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak.
In an interview Friday, a senior Ukrainian security official told AFP that there was no danger of an imminent Russian invasion.
Kiev has been battling pro-Russian separatists for a while after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.
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The West has long accused the Kremlin of providing direct military support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies the allegations.
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