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Russia says it is withdrawing its large deployment of troops near Ukraine's border

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Russia has now ordered its troops back to their permanent bases
Russia has now ordered its troops back to their permanent bases   -   Copyright  AP/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service
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Russia has reportedly begun to withdraw troops deployed near Ukraine and annexed Crimea after deeming its military exercises over on Thursday.

In a statement run by Russian news agency TASS, Russia's Defense Ministry said troops had "begun to return to their permanent stations" on Friday.

The enormous deployment, including dozens of navy ships, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of troops, was heavily criticised by Western powers, with many seeing it as a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine.

"The troops have demonstrated their ability to ensure a reliable defence of the country," Russia's defence minister Sergei Shoigu said in a press release on Thursday, announcing the withdrawal.

"So I decided to complete the inspection activities in the southern and western military districts" bordering Ukraine, he said, adding that he felt the "goals of the snap check of readiness" had been "fulfilled".

Neither Shoigu's statement nor the statement released on Friday appeared to indicate when all troops would be pulled back to their permanent bases.

The defence minister further said that the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills would be kept there for another massive military exercise later this year.

Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern Voronezh region. The sprawling range is located 160 kilometres east of the border with Ukraine.

In a statement on Friday, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said he welcomed Shoigu's statement as a "positive" development.

"If Russia does withdraw the huge military forces it has deployed from the border with Ukraine, it will ease tensions," he said in a translated statement.

However, he said, "we must remember that this step alone does not stop the escalation or the conflict as a whole."

The foreign affairs minister said that by conducting "dangerous exercises," Russia "created a real danger for Ukraine".

Now, he said, the country wants to see "constructive action" taken to deescalate the situation.

Kuleba also thanked international partners for their "decisive and timely" response to Russia's actions, crediting them for pushing Russia to pull troops back.

According to NATO and the United States, the build-up of forces grew to its largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and lent support to separatists in Ukraine's east.

There has also been an increasing number of violations of a ceasefire held in the region in recent weeks, as well as growing tensions between the two nations.

On Tuesday, Kuleba had encouraged the West to strengthen sanctions against Russia as he expressed concerns of the continued build-up of troops.

Meanwhile, Moscow rejected the concerns as it warned Kyiv against trying to re-take the rebel-held eastern region. It said such an operation could force Russia into an intervention to protect civilians.

The Russian Defence Ministry said the military drills in Crimea had involved 60 ships, more than 10,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 1,200 military vehicles.

More than 2,000 paratroopers practiced a landing with 60 military vehicles on Thursday alone, while fighter jets covered overhead.