Moment Putin caves to the West and withdraws troops from Ukraine border but shows off firepower in act of defiance

VLADIMIR Putin has pulled back Russian troops from the Ukraine border despite showcasing the country's military firepower.

It comes as new footage shows Russian forces displaying their combat readiness in various regions across the country.

Defence minister and close ally of Putin Sergei Shoigu ordered ten of thousands of troops back to their bases by May 1.

But at the same time, he ordered their heavy weapons kept in western Russia for another military exercise later this year.

The weapons will be stored at the Pogonovo firing range in the southwestern region of Voronezh – 100 miles east of the border with Ukraine.

Overnight, "frightened"residents in Rostov-on-Don, close to the Ukrainian border, witnessed “spooky lights” later identified as an infrared guidance system on a Russian warplane.

A video shows a 600-strong deployment from the Northern Fleet performing live firing drills in the Astrakhan region with S-300 long range surface-to-air missiles.

Other footage shows Tu-95 strategic missile carriers in the Amur region, artillery fire from warships in the Pacific, and army drills in the Leningrad region.

Moscow also claimed to have turned away in American spy plane from its state border amid high tensions between Russia and the US.

Footage from a Mig-31 shows it intercepting a US air force  RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft off the Pacific coast of Russia. 

The signal to start the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine came as Putin's close ally Shoigu was in annexed Crimea where huge air and naval drills have been underway on the Black Sea. 

Washington reacted to Russia’s reported pull-back of troops with State Department official Ned Price saying:  "We've heard words. I think what we'll be looking for is action.”

The order comes after Putin massed more than 150,000 troops on the border with Ukraine in the region's largest ever military build-up, according to the EU's top diplomat.

EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell had warned a spark could tip the stand-off into full warfare.

He said after a meeting of foreign ministers: "It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever.

"It's clear that it's a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops. Well, a spark can jump here or there.

"It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident."

The 150,000 figure was considerably higher than the 110,000 estimated by Ukraine's Defense Minister Andriy Taran last week.

It was not immediately clear if  the dispersal order applied to all the forces surrounding Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who earlier challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him in the conflict zone, welcomed the decision to "de-escalate" tensions at the border.

"The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension," he tweeted.

"Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbas. Ukraine seeks peace. Grateful to international partners for their support."

Over 10,000 troops, 1,200 units of equipment and 40 warships took part in the active phase of the exercise.

Russian ambassador Andrey Kelin had said Moscow had “no intention” of a large-scale military conflict despite moving tanks and ships to Ukraine's doorstep.

Last week pictures showed Russian armoured cars painted with "invasion stripes" in Astrakhan, 350 miles from the border.

Military experts had warned that similar white markings – which help identify forces from the same side – were used by the Soviet Army during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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