KIEV: Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Monday it has noticed a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from its border that may be linked to Washington’s latest push for a diplomatic solution to the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
“In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradu- ally withdrawing from the border,” the Ukrainian defense ministry’s general staff spokes–man Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview.
Dmytrashkivskiy said he could not confirm how many soldiers the drawdown involved or the number of troops still station at Russia’s border with its former Soviet satellite.
US and European Union (EU) officials estimated over the weekend that Russia’s sudden military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern frontier had reached 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers.
Kiev’s Center for Military and Political Studies analyst Dmytro Tymchuk said on Monday that his sources had told him that Russia had only 10,000 soldiers remaining near the border by Monday morning.
The Ukrainian defense ministry official said Kiev had not been formally notified of the drawdown by Moscow, and therefore did not know precisely why the troops were being moved.
“This could linked to be a regular rotation of soldiers,” said Dmytrashkivskiy.
“Or it may be linked to the Russian-US negotiations,” he added.
The reported gradual withdrawal of Russian troops came after US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sunday for talks that reached no breakthrough on the crisis, but ended with an agreement for the sides to resume negotiations again soon.
The latest bid to resolve the worst East-West standoff in the post-Cold War era came after Russian leader Vladimir Putin unexpectedly called US President Barack Obama on Friday.
Both sides stressed they believe in finding a diplomatic solution and put forward plans on how to end the crisis, triggered in February when the pro-Moscow government in Kiev fell and the Kremlin sent thousands of troops into Crimea before annexing the southern peninsula.
Washington and its allies have imposed stinging sanctions on Moscow for its flagrant land grab and for massing thousands of troops on the borders of eastern Ukraine. US officials believe that the measures are biting hard and causing Putin to seek a way out.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the hastily-arranged talks with Kerry in Paris had been “constructive” and would continue, but he reiterated Russia’s belief that Ukraine should become a federal nation, according its ethnic Russians greater autonomy.
Kerry said Washington had agreed to study Moscow’s ideas unveiled in the “frank” talks, but stressed the US administration believes Russia’s “actions to be illegal and illegitimate.”
He urged Russia to pull back its forces from the borders of Ukraine, and said any talks on the country’s future must include Kiev’s leaders.
“We will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table. This principle is clear. No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Kerry told reporters later.
Any progress “must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine’s borders,” Kerry added, saying the US believed “these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine” which did not create the right atmosphere for talks.
But Lavrov did not mention the troops in his press conference, and both sides acknowledged differences still remained.
Washington would work with the new interim leaders in Kiev to ensure the rights of minorities and language rights, as well as the disarmament of militias and free and fair presidential elections in May, Kerry said, in a tacit acknowledgement of some of Moscow’s concerns.
Moscow’s plan would allow parts of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to declare Russian as a second official language and secure more independence from Kiev—a move analysts view as a bid to weaken the authority of what is likely to be a permanent new pro-Western leadership.
“We are convinced that federalism is a very important element of the constitutional reforms,” Lavrov said.
“We have to find a consensus, a compromise between the regions of Ukraine,” he added.