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.
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. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine's presidential vote set for Sunday.
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.
The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed "separatists" and "terrorists."
Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government's foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.
He also urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine's defense ministry said.
AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto local residents' lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.
Slovyansk has been the epicenter of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.
Ukraine's central government has urged rebels to lay down arms and sit down for talks, but they say they are only prepared to discuss the withdrawal of government troops.
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