Several trains carrying weapons and planeloads of troops have left regions near Ukraine as part of a massive military pullout, the Russian Defence Ministry said on Thursday.
It said four trainloads of weapons and 15 Il-76 heavy lift transport planes left the Belgorod, Bryansk and Rostov regions on Wednesday. It added that the troops would reach their permanent bases before June 1.
Nato, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, said on Tuesday it didn’t yet see any signs of a Russian withdrawal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin scoffed at Nato’s scepticism, saying the pullout involving large numbers of troops would take time and “those who aren’t seeing it should look better”. He said the pullout would be clearly visible in satellite images.
Putin’s pullout order and his remarks welcoming Ukraine’s presidential election this Sunday reflected an attempt to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
The United States and the European Union imposed travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage after Russia annexed Crimea in March. The US and EU have warned that more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of the Russian economy would follow if Russia tries to grab more land or attempts to derail Ukraine’s election.
Moscow has supported a peace plan brokered by Switzerland and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which envisages a broad amnesty and the launch of a national dialogue that focuses on the decentralisation of government and upholding the status of the Russian language.
Russia also has pushed for guarantees that Ukraine will not join Nato and has advocated constitutional reforms that would give broader powers to the regions, which would maintain Moscow’s clout in the Russian-speaking eastern regions that form the nation’s industrial heartland.
Pro-Russian insurgents in the east have seized government buildings and engaged in clashes with government troops that have left scores dead since April.
They have declared two regions independent and some called for joining Russia, but Putin has ignored the plea as he sought to ease the worst crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the cold war.