Andrey Kronberg/AFP/Getty Images

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

The move appears to indicate Russia’s intention to defuse crisis, although similar pledges have gone unmet

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near the Ukrainian border to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as 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 Russian regions of Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk 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 could signal an attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. Any move would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

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The Kremlin statement didn't say how many troops would be pulled from those regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin's earlier withdrawal claim. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that it had "not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border."

The U.S. and the European Union previously slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's inner circle over Russia's annexation of Crimea. And they threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine's presidential vote, set for Sunday.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said it would check the troops' withdrawal and urged Moscow to cancel an air force exercise set to take place in the next few days in southwestern Russia. It said the exercise — which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including long-range bombers — would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, previously declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday's vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the secessionism — claims that Russia has denied.

Putin has supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and defuse tensions ahead of the vote by offering amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. The OSCE 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. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called them a "step in the right direction."

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said.

Slovyansk has been the center of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the local office of Ukrainian Railways. The company told The Associated Press that the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 train cars.

The attackers drove out the chief of the Donetsk branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their own man, Oleksandr Vatula. He said outside the building that he is representing the Donetsk People's Republic and pledged to restore the train traffic.

Ukraine's central government has urged the rebels to lay down arms and sit down for talks, but they say they are prepared to discuss only the withdrawal of government troops.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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