Vladimir Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home ahead of poll
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases.
The move is believed to be an effort to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of sanctions,
Mr Putin, pictured, also praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.
Mr 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 would also be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.
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 US and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin's earlier claim of a withdrawal. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen yesterday reiterated the military alliance has "not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops".
He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow, and has proposed holding a meeting next week.
The US and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Mr Putin's entourage over Russia's annexation of Crimea.
They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine's presidential vote set for Sunday.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said on Dozhd TV that the pullout was a sign that Mr Putin had decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now. Mr Felgenhauer added that: "They (the Russians) think that the Ukrainian government won't be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate."