Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered Kremlin troops to pull back from the border with Ukraine after weeks of military exercises that the Kiev government and Western allies accused of heightening tensions between the two former Soviet republics.
Putin, who heads to China for economic and political talks this week, said spring military drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions had been completed and troops were to return to their normal bases, the Interfax news agency reported without further detail.
Russian officials had said two weeks ago that their forces were withdrawing from the 1,000-mile border with Ukraine, although North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels said they had seen no sign of a pullback.
Top NATO officials said last month that satellite surveillance showed the Kremlin had amassed at least 40,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s border.
Ukrainians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president to replace ousted former leader Viktor Yanukovich, who fled a popular rebellion in late February and has taken refuge in Russia. Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally, sparked fury among western Ukraine’s pro-European citizens when he abandoned an economic and political association agreement with the European Union in November.
It wasn’t clear if the troop withdrawal order was a further signal that the Kremlin will let Sunday’s election take place without interference. Armed, pro-Russia separatists have occupied government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions over the past two months and vowed to prevent the Kiev-administered election from taking place in the areas they control.
The separatists who have barricaded themselves in seized government buildings organized their own vote on May 11 after which they declared independence from Ukraine. Some self-styled leaders of the breakaway areas have appealed to Russia for annexation, as occurred in Ukraine’s Crimea region in March.
Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders who took power after Yanukovich fled have accused Putin of orchestrating the violent takeovers in eastern Ukraine, and U.S. and European governments have also blamed the Kremlin.
But Putin has been silent in the face of the separatists’ appeals for union with Russia, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Moscow was prepared to do business with an elected president in Ukraine.