MOSCOW — The Kremlin announced Monday that President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian troops conducting exercises along the Ukrainian border to return to their home bases at the conclusion of the drills, signaling it is not planning any military action in eastern Ukraine before that country’s presidential elections Sunday.
However, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the Western allies had not seen any sign of a withdrawal of Russian forces.
During a news conference in Brussels, Rasmussen noted that it was the third such statement by Putin without any evidence of a pullback of troops or equipment from the Ukrainian border. The Monday statement seemed to differ from the earlier ones in specifying a return to permanent bases rather than a pullback to camps near the border.
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered the withdrawal of military units in conducting drills in the Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions of western Russia. At the same time, it called for “the immediate halt of punitive operations and use of force” by the Ukrainian government and demanded “resolution of the various problems through peaceful means alone.”
Even as national round-
table talks have begun in Ukraine aimed at resolving the country’s political crisis, the provisional government in the capital, Kiev, has pressed on with a security operation aimed at suppressing the armed pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. The government refers to the separatists, who have seized some public buildings, as terrorists.
Sporadic violence, including injuries and deaths, has continued throughout eastern Ukraine in recent days. On Sunday night, local news agencies reported that armed pro-Russian separatists had seized a police station in the city of Luhansk.
The Kremlin’s call for an end to the Ukrainian government’s campaign against the separatists was reiterated by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at a news conference in Moscow on Monday.
“We still insist on the first unconditional step: a halt of the so-called antiterrorism operation, which is turning into actions aimed at terrorizing citizens of Ukraine just for their political convictions,” Lavrov said.
The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or say how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border.
Moscow offered some praise for the roundtable negotiations, which involve discussions of two alternate plans to give more authority to local officials.
The Kiev government is pushing a decentralization plan that would give more budget authority to municipal officials, while turning governors into regional representatives of a strong national government. Russia, meanwhile, has advocated a federalization plan that would weaken the central government in Kiev in favor of empowering regional governors.
“President Vladimir Putin welcomes the first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalization, seeking to establish direct dialogue in which all parties concerned should take part” the Kremlin said.
In a sign of the continuing mistrust, Lavrov warned against any effort by Kiev to use the round-table talks as public window dressing while secretly pursuing other changes in government structure behind the scenes in Parliament.
“If the idea is to use the round tables simply as a folding screen, as a means of letting off steam, while holding the actual reform in a close manner, it will not add trust,” Lavrov said.
In addition to the decentralization plan, the Kiev government has been working on broader constitutional changes. Lavrov said some proposed constitutional amendments had been shown to officials in Europe for a consultative review, and he demanded that those changes also be addressed during the public talks. The next round of negotiations has not been scheduled.
“We are calling for the national dialogue to be closely linked to the constitutional reform process,” Lavrov said.
Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, described the continued presence of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border as worrisome and problematic.
“So far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all, and I strongly regret that because withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to deescalating the crisis,” he said.
“There is no reason whatsoever why the Russians should mass military forces to that scale along Ukrainian borders,” he said. “If we one day see clear evidence of a meaningful Russian withdrawal of troops from Ukrainian borders, I will be the very first to welcome it.”
Rasmussen also denounced Russia for undertaking what he called “illegal military actions in Crimea” and the “illegal annexation” of the peninsula.
“What we have seen in Ukraine is outrageous,” he said. The result, he said, is a “completely different security situation in Europe. It is less predictable and more dangerous.”
He warned that Russia would probably add further uncertainty by stepping up pressure on Moldova and Georgia, neither of which belongs to NATO, to back away from signing of a trade and political pact with the European Union this summer.