Pro-Russian insurgents fighting Ukrainian government forces faced a public setback on Tuesday as Russia's Defense Ministry said its units had started to dismantle their camps in border regions and pull back to home bases in Russia.
A day after President Vladimir Putin issued a pullout order in an apparent attempt to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said that its forces in the Bryansk, Belgorod and Rostov regions were preparing for a journey to their home bases.
NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, said it is watching the situation closely but could not yet confirm a change. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu challenged Russia on Tuesday "to prove that they are doing what they are saying."
The Russian Defense Ministry said it would take time for troops to dismantle their camps and load equipment on trucks for a march to railway stations. It did not say how many troops were being pulled out from the three regions or how long it would take.
Footage broadcast by Russian television showed what it said were troops on their way out, but their exact locations and routes remained unclear.
Regardless of the specifics of the pullout, Putin's order made it clear that he has no immediate intention of sending the Russian army into eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian government forces in weeks of fighting that has left dozens dead.
On Tuesday, rebels continued to exchange fire with government forces on the outskirts of the eastern city of Slovyansk, which has been the epicenter of clashes.
Yekaterina Len, a 61-year old resident of the city whose house was hit by a mortar shell that appeared to be fired by government troops, burst into tears as she looked at the wreckage. She survived the shelling by spending the night with neighbors.
Len and other Slovyansk residents sounded exasperated and angry with both sides.
"They must stop with this banditry so that there can be peace," said another Slovyansk resident, Lina Sidorenko. "How much longer can this go on? We had a united country and now look what's happened."
Ukraine's richest man, metals tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, chimed in on the public dismay over the hostilities, saying the situation has devastated the eastern regions that form the nation's industrial heartland.
Akhmetov issued a statement calling for an end to the mutiny in the east, which he described as a "fight against the citizens of our region."
"Is looting in cities and taking peaceful citizens hostage a fight for the happiness of our region? No, it is not!" Akhmetov said.
He urged all workers in the region to hold a "peaceful warning protest" Tuesday at the companies where they work by blowing sirens "in support of peace and against bloodshed.”
Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov quickly hailed Akhmetov's move, saying on Facebook that "the people's power and energy will sweep the terrorist scum away better than any counter-terrorist operation."
Russia has scathingly criticized the new Ukrainian administration, which came to power in February after the toppling of a pro-Russian president. Pro-Russian activists declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent of Ukraine following referendums earlier this month that Ukraine and the West have denounced as a sham.
Russia initially seemed supportive of the pro-Russian movement in the rapidly fracturing country. But Putin's order to withdraw troops from areas near the border and his support for this Sunday’s presidential vote – which he had previously sought to postpone – appeared to reflect a desire to de-escalate the crisis. The situation in Ukraine has resulted in the most tense relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.