WASHINGTON – Russia has begun pulling most of its roughly 40,000 troops away from its border with Ukraine, a move that U.S. and NATO officials called encouraging.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the movement of soldiers and equipment was promising but that all of the Russian troops shifted to the area since March need to be withdrawn.
The troop movement this week was taken as a concrete sign that Moscow is scaling down its confrontation with Ukraine, which began with the overthrow of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in February and continued through recent separatist uprisings in Ukraine’s east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the pullback Monday, saying the troops had concluded what he labeled military exercises. But with fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian troops continuing, U.S. officials are holding off on declaring the crisis over.
“We do know that thousands of Russian troops have been pulled back and are moving away, but we also know that there are thousands of Russian troops still there that have not yet moved,” Hagel said Thursday.
A U.S. defense official said satellite imagery and other intelligence indicated that Russian forces were packing up and leaving in large numbers.
In some places, the troops were preparing to load armored vehicles onto rail cars, a sign they were being transported back to bases away from the border, the official said. Some areas where the troops had been camped out for weeks are now deserted, he said.
“We’re seeing movements or preparations to move in various stages, but there’s still a capable force that remains,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
Seven Russian battalions – several thousand troops – remain in place near the border, officials said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general, said about two-thirds of the Russian troops were preparing to leave.
“However, there are still quite a number of Russian troops ready to take action if a political decision is taken,” he said. “So we continue to call on Russia to stop supporting armed pro-Russia gangs and seal the border so that we don’t see arms and fighters crossing into Ukraine.”
Rasmussen said ambassadors of NATO countries and Russia would meet Monday in Brussels to discuss Ukraine, the first face-to-face session since NATO froze relations with Moscow after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March.