Russia Will Do What Is 'Necessary' to Secure Borders, Despite Troop Pullback: Defense Minister

Russia's defense minister said Tuesday that the troop pullback from the Ukraine border had nothing to do with Western pressure and that Moscow will do whatever is necessary to protect itself.

Western NATO forces were worried about the buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine and strongly urged the Kremlin to withdraw its forces. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the drawdown last week and said the Western reaction was inappropriate.

"Some even warned us that our activities on our own territory will have consequences," Shoigu said. "I would like to emphasize that we don't see such warnings as acceptable and will do everything that is necessary to ensure the security of our borders."

He said the deployment of NATO troops near Russia was a cause of concern for Moscow.

"The U.S. and NATO activities to increase combat readiness and build up their presence have contributed to an increase in military threats," Shoigu said. Moscow was closely monitoring the deployment of U.S. troops and weapons in Europe as part of NATO's Defender Europe 2021 drills, he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said earlier this month before a meeting with Ukraine's foreign minister that the United States "stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine." He also called Russia's actions regarding Ukraine "provocative."

Ukraine Border Russia Troops
An Ukrainian serviceman patrols the checkpoint in the village of Shyrokyne near Mariupol, the last large city in eastern Ukraine controlled by Kiev, on April 26. Aleksey Filippo/AFP via Getty Images

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The Russian Black Sea Fleet said Tuesday that its flagship, the Moskva missile cruiser, has left its port of Sevastopol in Crimea for practice missile launches. The navy said that its assets were monitoring the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Hamilton that sailed into the Black Sea Tuesday.

Last week, Russia closed off wide sectors of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign warships until November, shrugging off Ukrainian and Western complaints.

The Russian troop buildup came amid a rise in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, stoking fears of large-scale hostilities. The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas, erupted shortly after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal that was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The agreement helped end large-scale battles, but skirmishes have continued and a peace settlement has stalled.

The deal obliged Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and declare an amnesty for the rebels, and stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after they elect local leaders and legislatures. Many in Ukraine saw the deal as a betrayal of national interests and opposed it.

The latest round of the so-called "Normandy Format" talks between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in December 2019 brought no progress.
Ukrainian officials have continuously pushed for revising the Minsk agreement and inviting the U.S. and other powers to join the peace talks, ideas Russia has rejected.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirmed a call for modifying the Minsk agreement and inviting other countries to help broker peace talks.

"I believe that the Minsk agreement should be flexible," Zelenskyy said. "The "Normandy format" could be extended to involve other serious, powerful players on a parallel track," Zelenskyy added, without specifying what other nations could be invited to help broker peace talks.

Zelenskyy on Tuesday visited Ukrainian troops near Crimea. He welcomed the Russian troop pullback, saying it helped de-escalate tensions. At the same time, he noted that "we don't have a 100 percent guarantee that the Russian troops won't return."

Zelenskyy voiced hope that an agreement could be reached quickly to secure a cease-fire in the east during the celebration of Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday.

A Ukrainian soldier was killed and three others were wounded Tuesday when their vehicle hit a landmine in the conflict area, bringing the number of Ukrainian servicemen killed in the east so far this year to 33.