Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases, while fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.
Putin specifically ordered Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring” drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.
The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.
The West said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal and NATO on Monday said it didn’t see any immediate movements to validate the latest assertions.
The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.
The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote.
Facing the prospect of more Western sanctions, 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.
The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.
Slovyansk has been the epicenter of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.