Nato sceptical despite Russia announcing end of Crimea military drills

The statement said tanks, infantry vehicles and artillery were leaving Crimea by rail. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (AFP, REUTERS) - Russia on Wednesday (Feb 16) said military drills in Moscow-annexed Crimea had ended and that soldiers were returning to their garrisons, a day after it announced a first troop pullback from Ukraine's borders.

"Units of the Southern Military District, having completed their participation in tactical exercises, are moving to their permanent deployment points," Moscow's Defence Ministry said in a statement.

State television showed images of military units crossing a bridge linking the Russia-controlled peninsula to the mainland.

The statement said tanks, infantry vehicles and artillery were leaving Crimea by rail.

It comes a day after Moscow said it was pulling back some of the troops deployed on its neighbour's borders.

Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei said on Wednesday that "not a single" Russian soldier will remain in the country after the massive joint manoeuvres by Minsk and Moscow on Ukraine’s border end.

"Not a single (Russian) soldier or a single unit of military equipment will stay on the territory of Belarus after the drills with Russia," Mr Makei told a press conference in the capital Minsk.

He said the defence ministry and long-time President Alexander Lukashenko had made this clear.

But Western leaders remain concerned that Russia could still launch an attack on Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden warning on Tuesday that an attack by Moscow remained "very much a possibility".

Mr Biden said that despite Russian claims earlier in the day, Washington and its allies had yet to verify the withdrawal of any of the tens of thousands of troops he says Moscow has now mustered along Ukraine's border.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also urged Moscow again on Wednesday to prove that it is pulling back troops, saying soldiers and tanks often move about.

"It remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal... What we see is that they have increased the number of troops, and more troops are on the way," Mr Stoltenberg told reporters at the start of a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

"If they really start to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome... They have always moved forces back and forth so just that we see movement of forces, of battle tanks, doesn’t confirm a real withdrawal."

China accused the US of "playing up the threat of warfare and creating tension", after Mr Biden warned that more than 150,000 Russian troops were still massed near Ukraine’s borders.

"Such persistent hyping up and disinformation by some Western countries will create turbulence and uncertainty to the world full of challenges, and intensify distress and division," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

"We hope relevant parties will stop such disinformation campaigns and do more to benefit peace, mutual trust and cooperation." 

China has been criticised for its stance on Ukraine by some leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

"The leadership of the two heads of state, China and Russia, always work to develop long term good neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperative relationship on the basis of non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third countries," Mr Wang added.

Britain joined the United States in saying it had yet to be convinced the pullout was real.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Times Radio on Wednesday: "We haven’t seen any evidence at the moment of that withdrawal." 

Speaking separately to the BBC, he said: "Physical observations that we see show the opposite of some of the recent rhetoric coming out the Kremlin."

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