There was no indication that Russia had withdrawn troops from the Ukrainian border on Monday, despite Russia’s third claim that it had, the Secretary General of Nato has said.
Both the European Union and the United States have threatened deeper sanctions against Russia if they attempt to destabilise their neighbour ahead of Ukraine’s presidential poll this Sunday.
The signals coming from the Kremlin on Monday suggested a softening of their stance. The Russian government said that Vladimir Putin had ordered troops currently involved in drills in the western regions of Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk to return to their home bases.
The order came after pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check point outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine's defence ministry said.
Mr Putin urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end what Kiev is calling an "anti-terror operation".
In the Kremlin’s statement, Mr Putin said he had told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to withdraw forces taking part in “planned spring” drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions.
A fortnight ago, the Russian President made a similar statement, in which he said that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
1/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
2/39 Ukraine crisis
Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
3/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
4/39 Ukraine crisis
A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
5/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
6/39 Ukraine crisis
A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
8/39 Ukraine crisis
Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
9/39 Ukraine crisis
Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
10/39 Ukraine crisis
A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
11/39 Ukraine crisis
Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
12/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
13/39 Ukraine crisis
A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
14/39 Ukraine crisis
A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
15/39 Ukraine crisis
A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
19/39 Ukraine crisis
A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
20/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
21/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
22/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
23/39 Ukraine crisis
An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
24/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
26/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
27/39 Ukraine crisis
A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
28/39 Ukraine crisis
A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
33/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
37/39 Ukraine crisis
A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
39/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
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While the statement did not specify how many or how quickly the troops will be removed, a fulfillment of the order would appear to signal an attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War.
While Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s Secretary General, said he would welcome any conciliatory moves, he told reporters that the evidence on the ground did not yet reflect Mr Putin’s words. “I think it’s the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all – I strongly regret that,” he said. A Pentagon official said that they had “seen no indication of any movement”.
Mr Rasmussen also said that the presidential polls must be allowed to go ahead. “Any effort to delay or disrupt the election would be an attempt to deny the Ukrainian people their choice,” he said.
Earlier in May, separatists held unofficial referendums in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which were declared to be landslide victory for independence. The regions have since been renamed ‘People’s Republics.’
Mr Putin’s command follows travel bans and asset freezes imposed on members of his entourage by the US and EU over Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
The Western powers threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Moscow tried to derail Ukraine's presidential vote set for Sunday.
The West and Kiev has accused Moscow of attempting to disrupt peace in the region, since pro-Russian rebels seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops – a charge that Russia has denied.
Faced with heavier Western sanctions, Mr Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
By offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language, the OSCE road map aims to end the violence in Ukraine and de-escalate tensions ahead of the country’s Presidential election.
The first round table talks under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”
Additional reporting by APReuse content