Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered his troops to pull back from the border with Ukraine after weeks of military exercises, another signal that the Kremlin is trying to avoid overtly undermining its neighbor's Sunday presidential election and risking further sanctions from Western countries.
Ahead of his departure for a summit in China, Putin issued an order declaring "planned spring exercises" completed and said the troops would return to their normal bases from the Russian border regions of Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk.
Kremlin officials had said two weeks ago that Russian forces were being withdrawn from the 1,000-mile frontier with Ukraine in response to foreign complaints that the buildup was exacerbating tensions in the region. North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said they had seen no evidence of a pullback of the estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers and their military hardware.
"I think it's the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven't seen any withdrawal at all," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a news conference at alliance headquarters in Brussels after Putin's announcement Monday. "I strongly regret that, because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis."
But a languid retreat under the face-saving guise of having completed routine maneuvers would fit with Putin's more measured approach to the crisis in recent days. He praised last week's opening of power-sharing discussions between the central government in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, and the country's disparate regions as an important first step toward resolving the conflict, which United Nations human rights observers said Friday had killed at least 127 people in eastern Ukraine and led to an "alarming deterioration" of security in the region.
Russian media also quoted Putin and other top officials as reiterating that Ukraine's interim government must cease its "anti-terrorism operation" aimed at recovering control of government facilities seized by pro-Russia separatists.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week also signaled a shift in the Kremlin's position on the Ukrainian presidential election in an interview with Bloomberg television. After weeks of warnings that fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian army was rendering the vote illegitimate, Lavrov said Russia would welcome the restoration of elected leadership in Kiev.
Asked about Moscow's attitude toward presidential front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a candy magnate with business enterprises in Russia, Lavrov said he was someone with whom the Kremlin could engage.
Poroshenko, like most Ukrainian oligarchs, was aligned with former president and Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovich, who fled a populist rebellion in late February and has taken refuge in Russia. Yanukovich sparked fury among western Ukraine's pro-Europe citizens when he abandoned an economic and political association agreement with the European Union in November in favor of closer ties to Moscow.
Putin's pullback order, like his spurned appeal for separatists to delay their May 11 secession referendums, may have been intended to create distance between the Kremlin and rebels occupying government facilities in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine. The separatists have their own anti-Kiev agenda, and despite the erosion of overt Kremlin backing are undermining preparations for the presidential vote in their breakaway regions.
The vast regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk together have about 6.5 million people, or about 15% of Ukraine's population after Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March.
Self-styled leaders of the two restive regions have declared independence from Ukraine, and separatists in Donetsk have appealed to Russia to also annex their territory.