KIEV/MOSCOW – Russia said Monday it has ordered troops near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases, just days ahead of a presidential vote aimed at bringing the country out of deep crisis.
The move could ease tensions, but both Washington and NATO — which noted it was the third time Moscow has made such a claim — said they have seen no signs of any withdrawal.
“Unfortunately, we have not seen any evidence at all that Russia has started withdrawal,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
A senior U.S. official said Washington will want to see “clear, firm evidence of this move before we make any judgment.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office said he had ordered thousands of troops deployed in border regions to return to barracks after the end of spring exercises.
But the Kremlin said Putin had also demanded that Ukraine’s pro-Western government halt what it described as a “punitive operation” against insurgents in the east and withdraw its troops.
In a telephone conversation with NATO counterpart Knud Bartels, Russia’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, voiced Russia’s “sharp concern” about the Atlantic alliance’s activity on its borders, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Gerasimov added “it does not contribute to security in Europe.”
Faced with the worsening crisis in Ukraine, in April NATO sent 600 troops to Poland and the Baltic countries while it deployed navy ships in the Baltic Sea and eastern Mediterranean.
The Russian remarks came amid continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, with at least one soldier reported killed in an attack near the flash point rebel town of Slavyansk.
“Due to the end of the planned spring training of troops that included their movement to Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions, the Russian president ordered . . . troops participating in the drills to return to their permanent bases,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The presence of the Russian troops near the border raised deep concerns after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March and the uprising by well-armed pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine’s eastern coal and steel heartland.
NATO estimates the number of Russian troops near the border at 40,000 and Rasmussen said Monday that a real withdrawal will be an “important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.”
Putin said earlier this month that the troops had been moved away from the border to regional bases to continue planned training exercises. NATO at the time also said it had seen no evidence of a withdrawal.
Kiev on Monday also called on Moscow to cancel air force drills planned between Wednesday and Sunday near the border, saying they will “fuel tensions” during Sunday’s election.
Under pressure from U.S. and European Union sanctions, Moscow has moved to reduce tensions with Ukraine after months of turmoil that sent relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
After initially dismissing Sunday’s presidential vote — called after February’s ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych — Putin later said it was a step in the right direction.
Many in the West see the vote as the only way to end a crisis that began with pro-EU protests in Kiev but spiraled into a wider confrontation that some fear could break Ukraine apart.
But, during a visit to Kiev Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, cautioned against expecting Sunday’s election will provide a “miracle.”
During an interview Simonovic also warned of a risk of a major exodus from rebel-held areas of east Ukraine because of the near collapse of basic services there.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk acknowledged it could be difficult to organize the election in some eastern districts.
But he added: “It affects very few areas and will not have any influence on voting. The election will take place and we will have a legitimate president.”
Still, it remains unclear how much credibility the poll will have as fighting continues between Ukrainian troops and separatists who have grabbed over a dozen towns and declared sovereignty in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said one soldier was killed and three others injured when rebels staked out in a kindergarten shelled a military checkpoint near Slavyansk on Monday.
The ministry also said one insurgent had been killed, seven wounded and one captured in another operation in Donetsk.
Ukraine’s military launched its offensive against the rebels in mid-April but has failed to oust them from their strongholds and suffered a number of humiliating setbacks.
Violence has flared often in various hot spots across the east, where the United Nations says the crisis has already cost more than 120 lives.
Putin on Monday also praised “the first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalization” during weekend talks in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
Moscow has demanded authorities in Kiev engage with separatists under a road map drawn up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an East-West security body.
Saturday’s talks involved a broad range of figures, including pro-Russians, but no separatist leaders after Kiev refused to invite what they describe as “terrorists” to the table.
Regional officials said further discussions will be held Wednesday in Donetsk.
Meanwhile, European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Russia, Ukraine and EU officials plan to meet May 26 for talks to resolve a gas dispute that has raised fears of disruptions to European supplies.