By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
International concern was drawn when warnings came that Russia had begun gathering tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine from mid-March.
In total over one hundred thousand Russian troops were estimated by the EU to have gathered in Russian-annexed Crimea and around the eastern border of Ukraine.
Nato’s SectretaryGeneral Jens Stoltenberg described the activity as the “largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea”, calling it “unjustified and deeply concerning”.
Russian defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that the military units were on exercise, and Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described the troop movement as an “internal affair”, whilst also alleging Ukrainian “provocations”.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister told NATO Russia was “openly threatening Ukraine with war and destruction of our statehood”.
Defence Minister Shoigu said he has now ordered troops back from the border, though he maintains the claim that they were on exercise, stating: “The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defence for the country”. He says he has ordered divisions to finish their activities by May 1.
Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky responded to the decision to withdraw troops:
The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension. 🇺🇦 is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support #StrongerTogether
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 22, 2021
Over 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine since Russia began its annexation in 2014.
Some analysts have suggested President Putin may have been testing Western world leaders, particularly US President Joe Biden, to gauge their reaction to more aggressive action.
Another potential explanation for Russia’s troop movement is to act as a distraction from the pressure the Kremlin is facing from supporters of Putin critic Alexei Navalny ahead of Septermber’s parliamentary elections.
Thousands of people across Russia have joined protests despite a ban, with over 1,700 reportedly arrested.
They are protesting in support of Navalny, who was detained in February. Navalny had just arrived back in Russia after recovering from being poisoned with Novichok nerve agent, which he alleges was ordered by Putin.
The Kremlin denies any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, and rejects the finding of multiple international experts that Novichok was used at all. This is despite Navalny tricking a state agent in December 2020 into revealing the existence of an operation to poison Navalny.
Navalny went on hunger strike on March 31, seeking medical care from his own doctors, alleging that prison doctors had not given him adequate treatment.
He was jailed back in February for violating the terms of a 2014 sentence for fraud, a charge he says is politically motivated. The European Court of Human Rights argues the case against Navalny had violations of justice, and ruled that he should be freed as his life was in danger. Russia rejected the ruling and has not released Navalny.
The Putin critic has ended his hunger strike 24 days after starting, having been urged by his doctors that he would risk imminent death if he did not end it. He said he has now been seen by civilian doctors, and that “given the progress and circumstances, I am ending my hunger strike”.
A Russian prosecutor has ordered Navalny’s anti corruption foundation network to cease all its activities nationwide. They are seeking to label the groups as ‘extremist’, which would mean the state could freeze the group’s bank accounts and jail its members.
The prosecutor alleges that the network is trying to destabilise the state and is encouraging revolution.
Navalny and his anti corruption network have been increasing the pressure on Putin, with tens of thousands protesting Navalny’s arrest in February, and Navalny has uploaded a number of videos suggesting high levels of corruption by Putin and his inner-circle.
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