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MOSCOW: Russia’s defence minister on Friday ordered an end to military drills near Ukraine’s border involving tens of thousands of troops and dozens of warships that had exacerbated tensions with the West.

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the move, saying it reduced tensions after weeks of renewed flighting in the east of the ex-Soviet country between government troops and pro-Moscow separatists.

Speaking during exercises on the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian soldiers would begin returning to their permanent bases on Friday.

“The troops demonstrated their ability to ensure the reliable protection of our country,” he said after flying over the Opuk firing range in a helicopter.

“I’ve made a decision to wind down the checks in the Southern and Western military districts,” he said, adding the drawdown of troops should be completed by May 1.

The announcement came after the West called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back troops and the Ukrainian leader offered to meet the Kremlin chief in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine.

Shoigu, who had arrived in Crimea earlier in the day to oversee military drills, said Moscow closely watched NATO movements and would remain vigilant.

Both armed with binoculars, Shoigu and the army’s general chief of staff Valery Gerasimov oversaw the drills from a viewing platform as helicopters flew overhead.

The ministry released dramatic footage of the land and sea manoeuvres that showed troops practising amphibious landings, jets streaking through the sky and infantry fighting vehicles traversing green fields.

In response to Russia’s announcement Zelensky wrote on Twitter that “the reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension.”

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