President Vladimir Putin said he would ease the way for Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election by pulling back Russian troops, though his Defense Ministry said they wouldn’t finish withdrawing until a week after the vote.
Putin has made promises before to remove troops from along Ukraine’s border that went unfulfilled. His latest pledge came days before the national ballot that’s taken center stage in the Ukrainian crisis as violence involving pro-Russian separatists has ebbed in the easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
This time, Putin said that “when the weather is good,” the U.S. and its allies would see evidence of the troop withdrawal that he ordered May 19 “to create additional, favorable conditions” for the vote.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said soldiers who were on drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions are returning to their permanent stations and will be back at their bases by June 1. They’ve been busy packing up and loading cargo to be sent back to their bases, it said in a statement.
NATO puts the number of Russian troops on the frontier at 40,000.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington yesterday that “we have seen some indications of activity on the border” of Ukraine, although it’s too early to say it’s the start of a withdrawal by the Russian forces.
“We don’t want to assume that because there is some activity on the border, that withdrawal will take place,” he said.
The Ukrainian authorities have said difficulties in conducting this weekend’s national presidential election in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine won’t undermine its legitimacy. Chancellor Angela Merkel has told German lawmakers she expects Russia to accept the result, two officials said.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden repeated a warning to Putin, who annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, not to interfere with the election. The U.S. and its European allies have accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine.
“If Russia undermines elections in Ukraine, we must remain resolute in imposing greater costs on Russia and we must be equally resolute to invest in the NATO alliance,” Biden said in a speech in Bucharest yesterday. The U.S. has pledged industrywide sanctions against Russia if the election is disrupted.
Russia’s Micex stock index jumped 1 percent to 1,439.90, its highest level since Feb. 28. The yield on benchmark local-currency bonds due February 2027 fell seven basis points to 8.82 percent, paring the increase since Putin’s intervention in Ukraine started on March 1 to 46 basis points.
The yield on the Ukrainian government’s dollar bonds due April 2023 dropped 22 basis points to 9.196 percent, the lowest in more than a month, while the hryvnia gained 0.4 percent.
Reports of separatist violence and other crimes have fallen by as much as half since a call last week by Ukraine’s richest man for an end to the strife gripping the country, Larysa Volkova, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said yesterday. Billionaire Rinat Akhmetov urged the creation of unarmed patrols largely made up of workers from his metals and other factories in the Donetsk region to help restore order.
The worker patrols are contributing to the drop in violence in the region, according to Volkova of the Interior Ministry.
“The situation is already de-escalating,” said Nick Piazza, chief executive officer of SP Advisors, a Kiev-based investment company.
“There is nothing good that can happen to those guys at this stage without clear support from Russia,” Piazza said of the separatists. “The population is turning against them because they do not like when random violence happens in their neighborhood.”
Even so, the situation remains tense, said Ilya Suzdalev, the spokesman for the Donetsk governor’s office.
Ukraine’s government is continuing its armed operations against the separatist rebels, a spokesman for the campaign, Vladyslav Seleznyov, said in Kiev. He said 24 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 85 wounded in the fighting.
The humanitarian situation in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions has worsened, United Nations Assistant-Secretary-General Ivan Simonovic told reporters yesterday in New York. He said that social services in the east are in “serious danger of a breakup” as a result of deteriorating security.
“There are numerous cases of illegal detentions, abductions, and especially affecting journalists as well as members of the electoral commissions, which will certainly make elections in the east of the country much more difficult,” said Simonovic, who briefed the UN Security Council on his visit to Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa last week and the latest report by the UN human-rights monitoring mission in Ukraine.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said he “quite extensively” criticized Simonovic’s report during the closed council meeting yesterday because it “basically repeats Kiev’s narrative of events and does not reflect many aspects of the situation.” The UN’s rights monitoring mission is “biased,” Churkin said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Shanghai at email@example.com; Andra Timu in Bucharest at firstname.lastname@example.org; Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at email@example.com