Apr 22, 2021 - World

Quiet on Ukraine's eastern front as Russia announces end to exercises

Russian military exercises today in Crimea. Photo: Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty

Just as the threat of a Russian invasion seemed to be looming largest, Russia's defense minister announced today that the troops that had massed on Ukraine's borders would return to their barracks by May 1.

Driving the news: Some 80,000 troops and heavy military equipment had been moved over the last month to occupied Crimea and to Ukraine's eastern borders.

  • Russian military drills involving more than 60 ships, 10,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 1,200 military vehicles continued through Thursday, per AP.
  • Ukrainians anxiously watched Vladimir Putin's annual address on Wednesday to see if he'd announce a military offensive.
  • Instead, Ukraine hardly featured in Putin's address. Then came word from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that the military exercises would now conclude.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the news, though he said Ukraine would remain "vigilant."

The big picture: The Russian buildup appears to have been engineered in part to gauge the response not only of Ukraine, but of the U.S. and Europe.

  • President Biden offered warnings to Putin and support to Zelensky, but backed off a plan to send warships to the Black Sea and made clear that the U.S. would not fight a war over Ukraine.
  • The European response was more limited still, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke several times with Putin. Biden also proposed a summit with Putin to discuss Ukraine and other issues.
  • In Ukraine, though, the threat of invasion sparked a sense of national unity and bolstered Zelensky's position, Davyd Arakhamia, the leader of Zelensky's party in parliament, told Axios in an interview on Wednesday.

What he's saying: "When it’s a peaceful situation, people start to play political games," Arakhamia said. "But when we see the external enemy is coming, and there is no discussion about who is the enemy, people are united."

“Putin has an art to unite the Ukrainian people. He did it in 2014. He’s done it again right now.”
— Davyd Arakhamia

"Of course we were expecting a more active role," Arakhamia says of Biden's response, "but we accept the fact that the U.S. doesn’t want to make the discussion [with Putin] even tougher, so they postponed these warships. We’re considering this a part of the geopolitical situation right now.”

  • “All the countries are afraid of direct war with Russia," he continues. "We understand the situation. It’s our duty to stand up, but of course we’d like to receive as much assistance as possible, both politically and economically and militarily.”

Arakhamia was leading the coordination between parliament and Zelensky over military preparations.

  • Putin's precise intentions were "a mystery," so the Ukrainians had to prepare to defend against Russian operations at sea, from Crimea and from Donbas in the east — all while knowing that Russia had the far superior military.

The bottom line: “If you asked people 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 'Would it even be a possible discussion that a war between Russia and Ukraine could happen,' people would call you crazy."

  • "And now we are seriously considering this scenario and preparing for this.”

Go deeper: Leaked Ukraine memo reveals scope of Russia's aggression

Go deeper