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US, West Wary of Russian Claims That Military Buildup Near Ukraine Is Over

FILE - Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, April 19, 2021.

Claims that Russian troops are beginning to pull back from positions in Crimea and along the Russian border with Ukraine are being met with caution in the West, where officials are demanding that Moscow be more transparent and refrain from additional saber-rattling.

Western officials said Friday that they were watching the situation "very, very closely" but cautioned against taking Russian assurances "at face value."

"We've seen the Russian comments about how they're ending the exercises," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters during a briefing Friday. "It's too soon to tell with any specificity."

"[We] continue to call on Russia to cease their provocations, to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and to not contribute to activities that only make the stability along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea less stable than it already is," he said.

Refrain from aggression

U.S. diplomatic officials Friday likewise urged the Kremlin to do more to reduce tensions.

"We've made clear in our engagement with Russia, with their government, that they need to restrain — refrain from their aggression and escalatory actions, and they need to immediately cease all of their aggressive activity in and around Ukraine," said State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter. "And that includes their recent military buildup in occupied Crimea as well as along Ukraine's border."

European officials said this week that more than 100,000 Russian troops had massed along the border with Ukraine in recent weeks, calling it Moscow's "highest military deployment" to the region and warning that the "risk of further escalation is evident."

U.S. defense officials declined to comment on specific numbers, though the Pentagon said the Russian buildup was larger than the one it mounted in 2014 before it invaded and seized Crimea.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday that military exercises involving troops along the border with Ukraine were over and that they would return to their permanent bases by May 1.

Later that day, a NATO official told VOA the alliance had taken note of the Russian announcement, adding, "Any steps towards de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue."

"NATO remains vigilant, and we will continue to closely monitor Russia's unjustified military buildup in and around Ukraine," the official said. "We continue to call on Russia to respect its international commitments and withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory."