Putin ready to meet Ukrainian President as Russia withdraws troops from Ukraine

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President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia would be prepared to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for talks in Moscow at any time convenient for him.

Putin made the comments after Zelenskiy on Tuesday challenged the Russian leader to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region for talks on ending the conflict there. 

Russian decision to pull back troops “overdue”, NATO says

Russia’s announcement on Thursday that it was ordering troops back to base from the area near the border with Ukraine is important and timely, a NATO official said, adding that the Western military alliance would remain vigilant.

“Any steps towards de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue,” a NATO official told Reuters. “NATO remains vigilant and we will continue to closely monitor Russia’s unjustified military build-up in and around Ukraine,” the official said.

The official said NATO stood with Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance, and called on Russia to withdraw all its forces from Ukraine’s territory.

Russia orders troops back to base after buildup near Ukraine

Russia announced on Thursday it was ordering troops back to base from the area near the border with Ukraine, apparently calling an end to a buildup of tens of thousands of soldiers that had alarmed the West.

The currencies of both Russia and Ukraine rose sharply after the announcement, signalling relief among investors just hours after Russia also ended war games in Crimea, the peninsula it occupied and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The Ukrainian president’s spokeswoman said this month that Russia had more than 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border and over 40,000 in Crimea. Around 50,000 of them were new deployments, she said. Moscow has not provided any troop numbers.

In a tweet, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine “welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas (eastern Ukraine)”, adding “Grateful to international partners for their support”.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had told Reuters Kyiv did not know whether Moscow intended to launch an attack or not, and said the West must make clear it would stand with Ukraine if Russia did so. “So it can go in either direction now,” Kuleba said. “And this is why the reaction of the West, the consolidated reaction of the West, is so important now, to prevent Putin … from making that decision.”

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said he had ordered troops involved in exercises to return to their bases by May 1, as they had completed what he called an “inspection” in the border area. “I believe the objectives of the snap inspection have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defence for the country,” Shoigu said.

EQUIPMENT LEFT

Military hardware was to be left at a training ground near the city of Voronezh, about six hours’ drive from Ukraine, so that it could be used again later this year in another big scheduled exercise.

Hours earlier, Shoigu had attended manoeuvres in Crimea, which Moscow said involved 10,000 troops and more than 40 warships. Russia also announced it had arrested a Ukrainian man in Crimea as a spy.

The troop buildup near Ukraine was one of several issues that have raised tensions between Russia and the West.

Last week, the United States tightened sanctions on Russia over accusations that it had hacked computers and meddled in U.S. elections, and the Czech Republic accused Moscow of a role in deadly explosions at an arms dump in 2014.

Both countries expelled Russian diplomats, prompting angry denials and tit-for-tat expulsions by Moscow.

Western countries have also urged Russia to free jailed hunger-striking opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with Washington warning of “consequences” should he die in prison. Russia says the West should not interfere.

In a major speech on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin sounded a defiant note, warning Western countries not to cross unspecified “red lines”. But Putin is also participating this week in a climate summit organised by U.S. President Joe Biden.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin was aware of an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to meet to discuss the crisis.

“If the president considers it necessary, he will reply himself. I have nothing to say on that now,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Maxim Rodionov and Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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