Putin Again Orders Troops at Ukraine Border to Return to Bases

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from The Wall Street Journal,

NATO, U.S. Officials Say They See No Evidence Yet of Pullback.

Pro-Russian rebels outside Slovyansk

President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops involved in exercises near the Ukrainian border to return to base—again—and called anew on Monday for Ukraine’s government to withdraw its military from the restive east.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Obama administration were skeptical, however, saying they have yet to see evidence of any drawdown of Russian troops despite a series of similar claims from the Kremlin.

Russia has been conducting military exercises on and off for the past few months, intensifying tensions with both Kiev and the West, and has sent conflicting signals about its troop presence at the border.

Monday’s announcement, real or not, was consistent with a softer line from the Kremlin in recent days as Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday nears.

Both the U.S. and Europe have warned of more sanctions if Russia interferes with the vote, the first since an uprising based in western Ukraine toppled the pro-Russian government last winter.

Yet after rapidly annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region in March, Russia has appeared less eager to take over two other separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Also, the front-runner in the election, Petro Poroshenko, hasn’t been as anti-Russian in his rhetoric as other candidates, suggesting that Moscow could be willing to engage with him.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin had ordered troops in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions of Russia to return to their bases now that planned military exercises are over.

The Russian stock market rose on the news to its highest level since March 3, when Russia authorized an increase in the number of its troops in the Crimean region.

But Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, signaled deep skepticism about such statements coming from Moscow.

“I think it’s the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “I strongly regret that, because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.”

The White House echoed his concerns.

As Russia’s ties with the West have been strained, it has been increasingly turning to Asia. Mr. Putin said in an interview with Chinese media on Monday that Russia will be trying to more than double its trade volume with China to $200 billion by 2020.

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