Russia completes 10,000-troop drills near Ukraine

An armoured carrier during military drills at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region, Russia on Dec 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia announced on Saturday (Dec 25) that more than 10,000 troops had finished month-long drills near Ukraine, amid Western accusations that Moscow was plotting an invasion of its former Soviet neighbour.

The Defence Ministry said the drills for Southern Military District forces had taken place in a host of southern regions including Rostov, Krasnodar and Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

But the drills also took place further afield, including in Stavropol, Astrakhan, North Caucasus republics and even in Russia's Caucasus ally Armenia.

The Defence Ministry said the troops were returning to their permanent bases and that standby units would be readied for the New Year's holidays.

Western countries have accused Russia of amassing upwards of 100,000 troops near Ukraine ahead of a possible winter invasion.

According to Kiev's estimates, the number of Russian troops along Ukraine's borders has increased from around 93,000 troops in October to 104,000 now.

Russia says it is free to move its forces on its territory how it sees fit and denies that it is planning a large-scale attack.

It has presented the West with sweeping security demands, saying that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance must not admit new members and seeking to bar the United States from establishing new bases in former Soviet republics.

Tensions reached a boiling point last Wednesday when President Vladimir Putin said Russia would take "appropriate retaliatory" military steps in response to what he called the West's "aggressive stance".

But he lowered the volume the next day, saying he had seen a positive reaction from the US to Russia's security proposals and said talks would take place next month.

A senior US official has said Washington was "ready to engage in diplomacy as soon as early January", both bilaterally and through multiple channels.

On Saturday, a German government official said Moscow and Berlin had agreed to a meeting in early January.

German leader Olaf Scholz and Mr Putin in a phone call last Thursday agreed to the meeting between the Chancellor's diplomatic adviser, Mr Jens Ploetner, and the Kremlin's pointman on relations with Ukraine, Mr Dmitry Kozak.

In an interview on Friday, a senior Ukrainian security official told AFP that there was no risk of an imminent Russian invasion.

Kiev has been battling pro-Russia separatists since shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

The West has long accused the Kremlin of providing direct military support to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies the claims.

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