The Russian Defense Ministry says it has started moving troops from the Ukrainian region of Crimea to their permanent bases following the conclusion of a large-scale military drill.
'At the moment, military units and groups [in Crimea] are moving to railway stations and airports, boarding military vessels, railway platforms, and military aircraft,' the ministry said in an April 23 statement.
The announcement comes amid heightened tensions with the West over Russia's major military buildup around the areas of eastern Ukraine where fighting between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.
The announcement came a day after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the withdrawal from areas close to the Ukrainian border, where thousands of military personnel had been brought in recent weeks for what Moscow described as a 'snap inspection of military personnel.'
SEE ALSO: Russia Orders Troops Back To Permanent Bases After Drills In Annexed Crimea
Shoigu said on April 22 that the objectives of the snap inspection 'have been fully achieved' and that the troops would return to their bases by May 1.
However, it was unclear from Shoigu's announcement if the return order covered all of the troops involved in the buildup near Russia's southern border and in occupied Crimea.
The Defense Ministry said earlier that its drills near Russia's southern border and in Crimea had involved more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft, and about 1,200 military vehicles.
SEE ALSO: Satellite Images Show Military Buildup In Russia, Ukraine
But the military hasn't reported the total number of additional troops that have been moved to the region.
Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, said on April 19 that Russia had massed some 100,000 troops near the border, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on April 20 that the Russian buildup across the border was continuing and was 'expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops' in about a week if it didn't stop.
Russia has argued that it has the right to deploy its forces anywhere on its territory and claimed that they don't threaten anyone.
Ukraine and most other countries refuse to recognize the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and consider it a violation of international law and agreements Russia signed ensuring the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Shoigu said the military had to be ready to respond quickly in case of 'unfavorable' developments arising from NATO's DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercises, an annual, U.S. Army-led, multinational joint exercise across 26 countries in Europe and Africa, including Estonia -- which shares a border with Russia -- Bulgaria and Romania.
The Russian troop buildup near Ukraine's border came amid stepped-up violations of a cease-fire in Ukraine's east and prompted the West to urge Moscow to pull its forces back.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said on April 23 that one of its soldiers was killed by the separatists, who violated the cease-fire 17 times in the previous 24 hours.
The United States and NATO have said that the buildup was the largest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its military, political, and economic support behind separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine.
Last week, Russia announced the closing of large areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign naval ships and state vessels until November, prompting protests from Ukraine and raising Western concerns.
Moscow also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they fully conform with international law.
Moscow also warned Kyiv against trying to retake by force its territories controlled by the separatists, saying that Russia could step in to protect civilians in the region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 21 signed an order allowing the call-up of reservists for military service without announcing a mobilization.
With reporting by TASS, Interfax, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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