VLADIMIR Putin today signalled the start of a pull back of troops from the Ukraine border.
But defence minister Sergei Shoigu vowed action an “immediate reaction” if Russia faced a threat from NATO.
The announcement came as Putin's close ally Shoigu was in annexed Crimea where huge air and naval drills have been underway on the Black Sea.
But the announcement said that from tomorrow “troops of the Southern and Western Military Districts, the Airborne Forces will begin to return from the southern borders of the Russian Federation to the points of permanent deployment”.
They were due back at bases by May 1.
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 its 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."
Mr Borrell said the build-up included field hospitals and various weaponry.
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."
The Russian defence minister said: “I believe that the goals of the surprise (military exercises) have been fully achieved.
“The troops have demonstrated the ability to provide reliable defence for the country.
“In this regard, I made a decision to complete verification activities in the Southern and Western military districts,.”
But he stressed Russian was on its guard over NATO activity in eastern Europe.
"We closely monitor the NATO troops deployment to the area of the Defender Europe-2021 upcoming drills,” he said.
“Coordination centres ensuring the reception of NATOtroops and cargo have been created in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.”
Russia would "respond appropriately to all changes in the situation near the Russian borders", he added.
The Black Seas drills involved Buk-M3 surface-to-air missile systems and batteries of Tor-M2 anti-aircraft missile launchers, Russia said today.
Russian social media carried headlines such as “the war is cancelled”, referring to Ukraine, while Russia's ruble currency began to rise sharply.
Shoigu said the order applied to all the troops currently involved in the large-scale military drills in Crimea.
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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