MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he ordered troops to pull out from the regions near Ukraine to help create a positive environment ahead of the nation’s presidential vote, but added the continued fighting will make it hard for the Kremlin to deal with the winner.
The pullout announced Monday was meant to create “favorable conditions for Ukraine’s presidential vote and end speculation,” Putin told reporters in Shanghai, China, where he attended a security summit.
In comments broadcast on Russian television, Putin referred to U.S. and NATO remarks that they aren’t seeing any sign of the withdrawal, saying “those who aren’t seeing it should look better.” He said the pullout will be clearly visible in satellite images.
“The numbers of troops and armor are quite large, and their pullout requires serious preparation. If the weather is good, they will see it all from space,” Putin said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that its military units in the regions near Ukraine have started moving to railway stations and airfields en route to their home bases, which they are expected to reach before June 1.
NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, repeated Wednesday it could not yet see any signs of a Russian withdrawal.
Putin’s pullout order and his statement welcoming the election, which he had previously urged to postpone, has suggested that he has no immediate intention to send the Russian army into Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian government forces in weeks of fighting that has left dozens dead.
Putin’s moves reflected an apparent desire to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and avoid further sanctions.
But the Russian leader also said Wednesday it will be “very difficult for us to develop relations with people who come to power amid a punitive operation in southeastern Ukraine.”
Putin added that Russia has helped establish a dialogue between the central government in Kiev and people in the southeast, but didn’t give any details.
Many in eastern Ukraine resent the new authorities in Kiev, which came to power after the toppling of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president after months of protests. They see the new government as a group of nationalists bent on repressing Russian-speakers.
Russia supports a peace plan brokered by Switzerland and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which envisages a broad amnesty and the launch of a national dialogue that focuses on decentralization of government and upholding the status of the Russian language.
A third round table under the plan is being held Wednesday in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the chief of the Russian Airborne Forces, said in televised remarks that battalions from three airborne divisions would return to their home bases within 10 days, but didn’t specify how many troops that included.
Russian television broadcast footage of columns of tanks and howitzers towed by heavy trucks. It wasn’t immediately clear where the footage was taken.
The Ukrainian government and the West have seen the Russian military buildup in the areas near the border as a possible precursor for grabbing more land following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. The United States and the European Union slapped sanctions on members of Putin’s entourage after Russia took Crimea, and have threatened more crippling sanctions if Moscow tries to invade eastern Ukraine or derail its presidential vote set for this Sunday.
Putin on Wednesday sought to offset the Western pressure by visiting China, where he oversaw the signing of a $400 billion, 30-year deal to export Russian gas to China.
Meanwhile, clashes between the rebels and Ukrainian government forces continued on Wednesday in eastern Ukraine. The insurgents have faced a challenge from Ukraine’s richest man, metals tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who demanded an end to the mutiny which he said was destroying eastern Ukraine and called on workers to hold protests. They have also faced angry local residents, increasingly exasperated over being caught in cross fire that have destroyed their housing and endangered their lives.