After the reported Russian troop build-up along Ukraine's border which thrust the half-decade long Donbass conflict back into media headlines late last month, the Kremlin this week has been conducting major naval and aerial military drills on the southern coast of Crimea and in the Black Sea.
Amid threats and counter-threats between Moscow and NATO, which also witnessed a rare overture from Biden for a bilateral summit with Putin to be held over the summer, Russia's defense minister on Thursday announced the close of the drills and ordered the additional troops back to the their permanent bases.
Speculation has been rampant and the actual numbers of additional Russian troops near Ukraine has differed wildly - from claims of multiple tens of thousands to 100,000 - and all the way up to fantastical projections of 150,000. It remains unclear to what degree Russia will fully draw down these 'extra' forces near Ukraine's border and in Crimea.
Russia's position all along has been that the initially reported "build-up" which was considered a severe "threat" to Ukrainian sovereignty (as Kiev accused Moscow of preparing an offensive) was in reality related to regularly scheduled military exercises in the region.
"I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled," Defense Minister Shoigu announced Thursday. "The troops have shown their defense capability and I decided to complete the drills in the South and Western military districts."
Are we finally witnessing rapid de-escalation? Or is it just the calm before the storm?
Here's more from the AP:
The Russian Defence Ministry said the manoeuvrs 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.
Russian Defense Ministry releases video of snap military exercises in Crimea involving more than 10K troops, showing off not only coastal defenses but landing capabilities. https://t.co/Zz3DBmQAps pic.twitter.com/tSVjShcyg7— Lucian Kim (@Lucian_Kim) April 22, 2021
Earlier this week Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba informed Western allies that the "continued" Russian troop mustering was "expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops" in about a week.
He argued that sanctions on Moscow must be ratcheted up - this even after Biden's last Thursday sanctions rollout targeting Russian officials and companies over the SolarWinds hack and alleged election interference.