The U.S. said there was as yet no evidence that Russian forces in regions bordering Ukraine have started a withdrawal announced by President Vladimir Putin two days ago.
“We have not seen any withdrawal activity as of 2:45 this afternoon, and we’re watching as best we can constantly,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters at a briefing yesterday. “We’ve seen them say this before, we’re going to withdraw, we’re going to move.”
Kirby’s comments echo assessments by the Ukrainian government and NATO. Russian state television said yesterday soldiers in three regions had started to return to their bases following Putin’s order.
After annexing Crimea in March, Russia has been accused by the government in Kiev and its U.S. and EU allies of fomenting unrest in the mostly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. Even so, Putin’s welcoming of a dialogue between the Kiev authorities and the regions and the announcement of a pullback have eased tensions before Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.
Russia’s Micex stock index rose for a fourth day this morning, adding 0.4 percent at 10:20 a.m. in Moscow. The ruble fell 0.1 percent against the central bank’s dollar-euro basket, following three days of gains.
“Russia has talked troop withdrawals before so there’s a lot of posturing,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said by phone. “We’ll have to wait several days to see if it’s for real.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned the U.S. and the European Union two days ago they risk provoking a new Cold War over Ukraine. The Russian government has prepared retaliatory measures in response to possible wider U.S. and EU sanctions, Medvedev said in an interview with Bloomberg Television at his residence outside Moscow.
The premier also refused to guarantee that Russia won’t incorporate the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which voted to break away from Ukraine in disputed referendums this month, saying that the U.S. and the EU must pledge not to interfere in Ukraine and push it into NATO.
“We don’t have to guarantee anything to anyone because we never undertook any obligations on this matter,” Medvedev said. “The most important task is to calm down the situation in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, criticized separatist supporters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and called for demonstrations yesterday. Several thousand employees at factories in the port city of Mariupol and other towns halted work for an hour to protest the presence of armed groups in the region, Interfax reported.
The Kiev government, which sent its army to crush the separatists after they seized government buildings, says the conflict shouldn’t prevent the presidential vote. Donetsk and Luhansk are home to 5.2 million eligible voters out of 36.5 million nationwide, according to the Central Electoral Commission.
Petro Poroshenko is set to win the vote, according to the latest compilation of opinion polls, which showed the chocolate billionaire extending his lead.