Russian Defense Minister Shoigu Orders Heavy Weapons to Remain Near Ukraine Border Even as Troops Pull Out

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered Russia's heavy weapons to remain near the Ukraine border even as troops pull out starting Friday and head back to their permanent bases after a series of massive drills.

On Thursday, Shoigu ordered the military to pull back troops who took part in the drills but said Russia should leave the weapons, which include tanks and heavy artillery, deployed in Western Russia for another military exercise later this year.

Troops are expected to return to their bases by May 1, but it remains unclear how many troops will remain in the region.

"Every year in Europe, the alliance conducts up to 40 major operational training events with a clear anti-Russian focus. In the spring of this year, the combined armed forces of NATO began the most ambitious exercise in the past 30 years," the defense minister said.

"I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled," Shoigu added. "The troops have shown their capability to defend the country, and I decided to complete the drills in the South and Western military districts."

The heavy weapons will remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region, which is roughly 100 miles east of the border Russia shares with Ukraine.

Sergei Shoigu
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a tribute ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall on February 23. On Thursday, Shoigu ordered Russian troops to pull back from the Ukraine border. Alexei Druzhinin/AFP

The buildup in the sprawling range has raised concerns in the U.S., which, along with NATO, has urged Russia's government to order its forces back.

The troop buildup near the border has been the largest it's been since 2014, when Russia first backed separatists in Ukraine's Donbass region. The European Union has estimated that more than 100,000 troops massed near the border.

A Russian open-source intelligence group, Conflict Intelligence Team, has been monitoring the troop buildup and said the forces that remain "still present a danger of deployment into occupied Eastern Ukraine."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the pullback, saying it would help ease tensions, and thanked international partners for their support.

"The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension," the president wrote on Twitter. Zelensky added that Ukraine will remain vigilant but is welcoming "any steps to decrease the military presence and de-escalate the situation in Donbas."

On Tuesday, Zelensky invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet, urging him to restore a cease-fire in the eastern industrial heartland where "millions of lives" are at stake.

Putin said on Thursday that he would be willing to discuss bilateral relations with Zelensky in the Russian capital.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price reacted to the announcement on Thursday, saying, "We have made clear in our engagement with the Russian government that it needs to refrain from escalatory actions and immediately cease all its aggressive activity in and around Ukraine, including its recent military buildup in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine's border, and its intention to block specific vessels in the parts of the Black Sea."

Newsweek reached out to Zelensky's office for further comment but did not hear back before publication.