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Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid more sanctions, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases Monday.

Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between Ukraine’s government and its opponents even as fighting continued in parts of the country ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

The seemingly conciliatory approach suggested that Putin may believe he has achieved his key goal of maintaining Russian influence over eastern Ukraine without having to send in troops.

Russia still wants guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and will conduct constitutional reforms to give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking east that forms the industrial heartland. The continued unrest in the east is serving Putin by making it difficult for the government in Kiev to consolidate its control in the region.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the forces involved in the “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine, and the withdrawal of troops deployed there would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out or specify how quick the withdrawal would be. NATO has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

In Washington, spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon said U.S. officials have not yet seen any sign of a Russian troop pullback. Press secretary Jay Carney said if Russia had pulled its troops back, the U.S. would know and would be able to confirm it publicly.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said a pullout would be a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said on Dozhd TV. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s election.

Ukraine is to vote on a successor to Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February following months of protests in Kiev.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troop withdrawal and urged Moscow also to cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia from Wednesday to Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russia rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block the election. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny. Russia denies this.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had urged Ukraine to postpone the election, has now softened his stance.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of the rebels in the east, whom it has dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.” A third meeting is set for Wednesday.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue. In a telephone conversation Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders expressed hope that the dialogue would continue, the Kremlin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged Ukrainian authorities to end immediately the military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued. Pro-Russia insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army checkpoint near a TV tower outside the city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, they appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told the AP the attackers disrupted freight train traffic, stranding about 4,000 rail cars in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Kiev and Moscow traded accusations over two Russian journalists who were arrested Sunday by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist in their release.

OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by both sides in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev; Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk; and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be a move to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases. Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow, and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said on Dozhd TV that the pullout is a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now. Felgenhauer said that Putin may hope to achieve his targets by non-military means instead.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine doesn’t join NATO and conducts a constitutional reform that would give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny – claims that Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had called for postponing the presidential vote, has now softened his stance, welcoming Sunday’s election.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told The Associated Press the attackers disrupted the freight train traffic, leaving about 4,000 train cars stranded in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — In what could be a move to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases. Putin also praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow, and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said on Dozhd TV that the pullout is a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now. Felgenhauer said that Putin may hope to achieve his targets by non-military means instead.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine doesn’t join NATO and conducts a constitutional reform that would give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny – claims that Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had called for postponing the presidential vote, has now softened his stance, welcoming Sunday’s election.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told The Associated Press the attackers disrupted the freight train traffic, leaving about 4,000 train cars stranded in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow, and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said on Dozhd TV that the pullout is a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now. Felgenhauer said that Putin may hope to achieve his targets by non-military means instead.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine doesn’t join NATO and conducts a constitutional reform that would give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny – claims that Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had called for postponing the presidential vote, has now softened his stance, welcoming Sunday’s election.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told The Associated Press the attackers disrupted the freight train traffic, leaving about 4,000 train cars stranded in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

He said that NATO remains open to a political dialogue with Moscow, and has proposed holding a meeting at the NATO-Russia Council next week.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said on Dozhd TV that the pullout is a sign that Putin has decided not to send troops to Ukraine, at least for now. Felgenhauer said that Putin may hope to achieve his targets by non-military means instead.

“They think that the Ukrainian government won’t be able to consolidate despite the presidential election, and the economic, political and social crisis will escalate,” Felgenhauer said. “They see no need to take the risky move of invasion, which would trigger serious sanctions.”

Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine doesn’t join NATO and conducts a constitutional reform that would give broader powers to its regions, something that would allow Moscow to maintain its clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny – claims that Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin, who earlier had called for postponing the presidential vote, has now softened his stance, welcoming Sunday’s election.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their man as its new chief. The company told The Associated Press the attackers disrupted the freight train traffic, leaving about 4,000 train cars stranded in the industrial region.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated the military alliance has “not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.”

The NATO official said the U.S.-led alliance remains open to speaking to Moscow. He said NATO has proposed meeting with Russian representatives in the NATO-Russia Council next week, but that Moscow has not yet replied.

“We’re open to a political dialogue,” Rasmussen said.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny – claims that Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

Slovyansk has been the epicenter of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.

In Donetsk, the capital of one of the regions that pro-Russian insurgents declared independent last week, masked gunmen seized the office of the local branch of Ukrainian Railways. The company told the Associated Press the attackers disrupted the freight train traffic, leaving about 4,000 train cars stranded in the industrial region.

The attackers drove out the chief of the Donetsk branch of Ukrainian Railways and installed their own man, Oleksandr Vatula. He said outside the building that he is representing the Donetsk People’s Republic and pledged to restore the train traffic.

Ukraine’s central government has urged rebels to lay down arms and sit down for talks, but they say they are only prepared to discuss the withdrawal of government troops.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and thoroughly investigate the case. She also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine, “urging all sides to stop intimidating and threatening members of the media and to let them do their jobs.”

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring drills” in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal, and NATO on Monday said it didn’t see any immediate movements to validate the latest assertions.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

Putin’s move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops’ withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise – which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers – would fuel tensions during the vote.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny, claims Russia has denied.

Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday also sounded warmer regarding the round tables, calling them a “step in the right direction.”

Putin and Lavrov urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. While it was impossible to confirm who fired the mortars, the shelling appeared to come from the Ukrainian government troops’ positions, damaging a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

Slovyansk has been the epicenter of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.

Ukraine’s central government has urged rebels to lay down arms and sit down for talks, but they say they are only prepared to discuss the withdrawal of government troops.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over two Russian journalists, who were arrested by Ukrainian forces near Slovyansk on Sunday.

The Ukrainian military said the two men, who had press accreditation with Life News, a Kremlin-connected TV channel, were with pro-Russian insurgents and were filming preparations for an attack outside Slovyansk. Russia has protested the arrest and asked the OSCE to assist their release.

OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, urged Ukraine to release the journalists and thoroughly investigate the case. She also condemned other recent cases of harassment of journalists by conflicting parties in Ukraine, “urging all sides to stop intimidating and threatening members of the media and to let them do their jobs.”

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases, while fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring” drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.

The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.

The West said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal and NATO on Monday said it didn’t see any immediate movements to validate the latest assertions.

The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.

The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday’s vote.

Facing the prospect of more Western sanctions, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.

The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed “separatists” and “terrorists.”

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the round tables for failing to include the government’s foes, Putin welcomed them as an attempt to establish dialogue.

He also urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine, where fighting continued on Monday. Pro-Russian insurgents fired on a Ukrainian army check-point near a television tower outside the eastern city of Slovyansk, killing one soldier and wounding three, Ukraine’s defense ministry said.

AP journalists also witnessed mortar fire hitting the village of Andriyivka, just outside Slovyansk. The shelling damaged a gas main running across a field and onto local residents’ lands. The pipeline caught fire, but no residents were hurt.

Slovyansk has been the epicenter of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents, who have seized government buildings across the east.

Ukraine’s central government has urged rebels to lay down arms and sit down for talks, but they say they are only prepared to discuss the withdrawal of government troops.

Alexander Zemlianichhenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops deployed in regions near Ukraine to return to their home bases, the Kremlin said Monday.

The move appears to indicate Putin’s intention to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine, the worst in Russia’s relations with the West since the end of the Cold War.

The West has protested the deployment of 40,000 Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, seeing it as a possible preparation for grabbing more land after the annexation of Crimea in March.

Putin has previously said he has ordered troops to return from the area near the Ukraine border, but the United States and NATO have said they see no sign of a pullout and have threatened more sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

The Russian Defense Ministry insisted that there were no buildup near the border, saying that the troops in the regions in western Russia are involved in regular training.

Putin went one step further Monday, ordering Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull out forces involved in such training in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, according to a statement released by the Kremlin.

Putin also voiced support for round tables in Ukraine, which were held last week under a peace plan brokered by Switzerland, which currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

He urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and police have sought to put down a pro-Russian rebellion in the east.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops deployed in regions near Ukraine to return to their home bases, the Kremlin said Monday.

The move appears to indicate Putin’s intention to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine, the worst in Russia’s relations with the West since the end of the Cold War.

The West has protested the deployment of 40,000 Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, seeing it as a possible preparation for grabbing more land after the annexation of Crimea in March.

Putin has previously said he has ordered troops to return from the area near the Ukraine border, but the United States and NATO have said they see no sign of a pullout and have threatened more sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

The Russian Defense Ministry insisted that there were no buildup near the border, saying that the troops in the regions in western Russia are involved in regular training.

Putin went one step further Monday, ordering Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull out forces involved in such training in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, according to a statement released by the Kremlin.

Putin also voiced support for round tables in Ukraine, which were held last week under a peace plan brokered by Switzerland, which currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

He urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and police have sought to put down a pro-Russian rebellion in the east.

Putin orders troops near Ukraine to return home

KDWN

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops deployed in regions near Ukraine to return to their home bases, the Kremlin said Monday.

The move appears to indicate Putin’s intention to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine, the worst in Russia’s relations with the West since the end of the Cold War.

The West has protested the deployment of 40,000 Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, seeing it as a possible preparation for grabbing more land after the annexation of Crimea in March.

Putin has previously said he has ordered troops to return from the area near the Ukraine border, but the United States and NATO have said they see no sign of a pullout and have threatened more sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine’s presidential vote set for Sunday.

The Russian Defense Ministry insisted that there were no buildup near the border, saying that the troops in the regions in western Russia are involved in regular training.

Putin went one step further Monday, ordering Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull out forces involved in such training in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, according to a statement released by the Kremlin.

Putin also voiced support for round tables in Ukraine, which were held last week under a peace plan brokered by Switzerland, which currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

He urged the Ukrainian authorities to immediately end a military operation in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and police have sought to put down a pro-Russian rebellion in the east.