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 Defense 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.

Russia has been conducting military exercises on and off for the past several months, intensifying tensions with both Kiev and the West, and has sent conflicting signals about its troop presence at the border.

While it wasn't clear whether the announcement actually reflected a change on the ground, it was consistent with a softer line from the Kremlin in the last week or two as the crucial Ukrainian presidential vote approaches this weekend.

Both the U.S. and Europe have warned of more sanctions if Russia interferes with the vote. The front-runner in the election, Petro Poroshenko, hasn't been as anti-Russian in his rhetoric as other candidates, suggesting that Moscow could be willing to engage with him.

Russian troops on the outskirts of Belgorod (Archive)

Mr. Putin ordered troops in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to return to their bases now that planned military exercises are over, according to a Kremlin statement.

He reiterated a call for Kiev to pull back troops from eastern Ukraine, where the government has been pushing ahead with what it calls an "antiterrorist operation" in an effort to oust pro-Russian separatists who have taken over cities and declared independence.

"Russia is calling for immediate cessation of the punitive operation, violent acts and withdrawal of troops as well as a resolution to all the accumulated problems by exclusively peaceful means," the Kremlin said.


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