Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a possibly significant shift in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, telling reporters he has withdrawn troops from the Ukrainian border. He also urged pro-Russian separatists to postpone a referendum scheduled for Sunday, according to the New York Times.
“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Putin said after meeting with the Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland and current head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to the Times.
“We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds.”
But NATO immediately rebuffed Putin’s claim. According to Reuters, NATO said it has “no indication” of any withdrawal.
“We have no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border,” a NATO official told Reuters.
Obama administration officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Putin’s claims and statements.
There is good reason to doubt Putin’s claims. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week that Russian forces had pulled back — but NATO immediately refuted that claim as well.
Over the past month, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, stoking fears he could use Russian military forces to intervene in southeastern regions of Ukraine much like they did in Crimea before its annexation. Some observers even worried Russia would invade Ukraine under the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking citizens in the region.
There are plenty of reasons, too, why the areas in which pro-Russian separatists are rebelling are advantageous for Putin, and why he wants to keep those regions under his influence. The Interpreter also makes note of an interesting point that adds to the doubt of Putin’s claims:
When Russia was moving forces toward Ukraine there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of videos uploaded from across the country showing the movement of tanks and troops across roads and railways. […] If Russia is mobilizing its armed forces, we’ll likely hear plenty of reports from Russian citizens. We haven’t seen that happen yet, so any unskeptical media reports are irresponsible.
Separatists in the region of Donetsk have called for a May 11 referendum to determine whether the region, which comprises the industrial heartland of Ukraine, should become a sovereign state.
Putin’s apparent pullback — if not yet clear in troop presence, at least in rhetoric — comes as the West has threatened punishing sanctions if it continues to escalate the situation in Ukraine. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would levy sectoral sanctions on Russia if it disrupted the Ukrainian elections scheduled for May 25.
Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland went a bit further on Tuesday, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that if Russia supported the May 11 referendum, it could be a “trigger” for more sanctions.
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