Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to pull back from the Ukrainian border, just days before he is due to have a rare meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart.
Russia’s press reported yesterday that some 17,600 troops were pulling back to their permanent camps following the order.
The Kremlin had claimed the troops were in the Rostov region close to Ukraine on “summertime exercises” but many in Ukraine and the West considered their presence a blatant attempt to intimidate and threaten the Kiev government.
The Kremlin said the order to pull the troops back came following a meeting between Mr Putin and Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister.
“The minister had reported to the Supreme Commander about the completion of the summer period of training on shooting ranges in the southern military district,” reported the statement, which was posted on the Kremlin’s web site.
“After the report, Mr Putin ordered the return of the troops to their permanent bases. In total, these are 17,600 military servicemen who were trained on the shooting ranges in the Rostov region over the summer.”
Although the Russian press said the withdrawal had already started, previous “orders” to pull troops back from the Ukrainian border appeared to have made little difference. In March and May the Kremlin said it had removed its forces from the frontier, but Nato, the US and Ukraine claimed they had found no evidence this had taken place.
The pullback of troops could be interpreted as a Russian move to improve relations with Kiev before a possible meeting between Mr Putin and Petro Poroshenko at an Asia-Europe summit, being held in Milan on Thursday and Friday.
Mr Poroshenko said he did not expect the talks, which could also cover the sensitive subject of energy and gas prices, “to be easy”.
There has also been no indication that Moscow is prepared to rein in the Russian-backed insurgents fighting Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine. Kiev has claimed frequently that the Kremlin has fuelled the conflict by committing regular Russian troops to it, and supplying rebels with weapons.
Moscow has always denied any involvement in the war, which has claimed 3,500 lives and continues despite a truce signed on 5 September. Last week saw some of bloodiest clashes, with around ten civilians dying in battles in and around the city of Donetsk.
By saying it is pulling troops back the Kremlin may also be trying to get the West to lift some of the sanctions applied against Russia, which have seen Russian banks’ access to international capital blocked and the value of the ruble slashed by 20 per cent since mid-July.
The resulting economic woes have fuelled rumours in Moscow that the effects of Western economic sanctions and fears of Russian isolation have started to crack the unity of the Russian elite.
German Gref, a chief executive of financial institution Sberbank, made a rare direct attack on the Russian government.
Speaking at a conference, he warned against repeating the “mind-boggling incompetence” of a leadership that “did not respect the laws of economic development”.