KIEV: Ukraine has said that Russian troops have moved away from the border, just days before the country’s make-or-break presidential poll, but stopped short of confirming the full withdrawal the West demands.
Moscow had announced it was pulling back its forces in a move that has the potential to deflate a bloody Kremlin-backed insurgency threatening to tear the ex-Soviet nation apart.
Kiev’s Western-backed leaders were also boosted on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) when Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov denounced the armed rebels who have overrun a dozen cities in his eastern industrial power base as bandits who might create “genocide.”
Ukraine’s border service announced on Tuesday that none of the estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers were now stationed within 10 kilometers (six miles) of the country.
But Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, on a visit to Berlin, later said he could not confirm a withdrawal.
“I hope that the declarations by Russian politicians that the troops are to be withdrawn from Ukraine’s borders do not just remain declarations,” he said.
Tensions between Moscow and the West have spiralled to Cold-War highs over the crisis in Ukraine, particularly Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and allegations it is driving the insurgency.
The United Nations estimates that around 130 people have died since violence in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions near the Russian border broke out last month.
The United Nations refugee agency said another 10,000 people—many of them ethnic Tatars in Crimea—have been internally displaced.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Ukrainian authorities are to hold a new round of “national dialogue” on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) aimed at ending the insurgency. The round-table discussions are to take place in the southern city of Mykolayv.
Move could ‘de-escalate’ crisis
The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have sent troops to Poland and the three tiny Baltic nations to calm jitters about Russian troops possibly not only overrunning Ukraine but also pushing further into Europe in a bid to reclaim ex-Soviet satellite states.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday that a real Russian withdrawal—following several earlier promises by President Vladimir Putin—would be an “important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.”
But the war of words between Washington and Moscow showed no signs of a let-up.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview that Moscow and the West were still “slowly but surely” approaching a second Cold War.
And US Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Romania, blasted Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, saying: “Europe’s borders should never again be changed at the point of a gun.”
Amid the standoff Russia carried out a successful test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from its Kapustin Yar rocket launch site near the Caspian Sea, news agencies reported citing the defense ministry.
Both Kiev and its Western allies see Sunday’s presidential vote—backed only grudgingly by Moscow—as a chance to unite the culturally splintered nation and win more legitimacy in the Kremlin’s eyes.
However, Kiev authorities have admitted they will have a hard time ensuring that polling proceeds smoothly in the eastern districts where the rebels still control dozens of cities and towns.
But in a move that some say could turn the tide against the rebels, key powerbroker Akhmetov condemned the insurgency and called people to stage rallies for peace.
“People are tired of living in fear and terror,” said the Donetsk native who once funded the deposed pro-Kremlin regime but is now seeking to build closer relations with the new Kiev team.
The Ukrainian government hailed Akhmetov’s intervention, with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov saying it “will help [Ukrainians] settle our differences and let our rifles gather dust”.
Putin has denied any direct role in the uprising and has so far refused to recognize the independence proclaimed by Donetsk and Lugansk in May 11 referendums that both the West and Kiev have denounced as a sham.