President Vladimir Putin has let the cat out of the bag with this week’s move to “draw down” a Russian army presence in the Black Sea region of the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Russian forces will cease observation along the Black Sea coast and reassign about 3,200 soldiers to other troops in and around the peninsula, state-controlled TASS news agency reported Monday.
In response, Crimea’s Navy chief Sergey Yaroshenko warned that Russia’s pullout would create tensions and be “another massive attack on our statehood.”
The Crimean peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by Putin in 2014. The move triggered the greatest political crisis in Russia-U.S. relations since the Cold War, and prompted the European Union and U.S. to impose sanctions on Russia, aimed at punishing Putin for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.
With the withdrawal, Russia appears to be setting the stage for a deeper military presence in Ukraine.
Putin also had amassed 40,000 Russian soldiers along the Ukraine border during the height of the Ukraine conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people. The vast majority of the soldiers were part of a border-monitoring force that could easily move towards Ukraine with a quick move.
In September, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak told Fox News the “military seizure” of Crimea was Putin’s legacy as Russia’s “greatest crime.”
“I spoke with the Russian defense minister at that time about the fact that the Ukrainians and the international community knew that the Russian troops on the border, in the mountains, had crossed the border. Yet in his response,” Poltorak said, “he denied that Russia was there.”
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have escalated since 2010, when a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and Crimea annexed by Putin was rising.
Much of the disagreement between Kiev and Moscow goes back to 1994, when Ukraine became the last nation of the former Soviet Union to ratify the U.S.-drafted treaty calling for Ukraine to enter NATO.
The Obama administration eventually expelled both the Russian and Ukrainian flags from a section of the Morag Bridge where NATO has a radar site in the Crimea. U.S. and NATO forces also told Russian troops to stay away from a base in the eastern Ukraine city of Kherson, fearing that they could transfer stolen U.S. tanks or armored vehicles from the Crimean peninsula to the eastern part of Ukraine that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Other lawmakers in Kiev argue that Russian troops have been in violation of the Ukraine-Russian Peace Treaty since 2014, but the U.S. has made an exception because the treaty is not in U.S. interests.
Samantha Vinograd contributed to this report.