Kiev, Ukraine • Ukraine began a tense countdown Monday to weekend elections as Russian President Vladimir Putin said troops deployed near the border with embattled eastern Ukraine have been ordered home.
Despite the announcement, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has "not seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border."
Putin previously claimed that about 40,000 Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s border had been withdrawn, but the United States and NATO have insisted that they have seen no signs of that. Putin’s office issued a statement Monday morning saying the troops involved in "routine spring" exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions have been ordered back to their barracks.
In an interview Monday, Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s economy minister, welcomed Putin’s announcement, saying it appeared to go further than the Russian leader’s earlier declarations about withdrawing troops from the border. Sheremeta said he sensed what could be a shift in tone and, hopefully, in substance.
"Is this credible? We shall see, but at even up until 10 days ago, all his declarations were much more hawkish," he said.
Ukrainians are set to go to the polls Sunday in historic presidential and mayoral elections, which could affect the country’s very makeup and its alignment between the West and Russia. Tensions remained high in the troubled Donetsk and Luhansk regions near the country’s border with Russia.
The front-runner in the presidential election is billionaire Petro Poroshenko, 48, widely known as the "chocolate king" for the fortune he made in the confectionery business. Poroshenko, who previously served in several top government posts, is leading in opinion polls, though he appears to be falling short of the absolute majority required to avoid a runoff on June 15.
Pro-Russian militants, who have seized administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops in the industrial region, have said they will boycott the elections. They allege that the recent chaotic referendums on self-rule in eastern Ukraine were valid. Kiev called the referendums a farce, and the West declared them illegal.
Russia said their results in favor of self-rule should be respected.
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