There was no indication that Russia had withdrawn troops from the Ukrainian border on Monday, despite Russia’s third claim that it had, the Secretary General of Nato has said.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.
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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.
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 AP
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