Alexander Zakharchenko, Prime Minister of the self proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic', centre, surrounded by pro-Russian rebels, walks in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014. A pro-Russian rebel leader says they have signed a demarcation deal with the Ukrainian government which sees the Ukrainians give up several villages including the one next to a strategic airport. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered thousands of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border to return to their usual bases, according to his spokesman.
Dmitry Peskov told Russian news outlets late Saturday in Sochi that Putin had ordered approximately 17,600 troops to return home from Rostov, a southern region that borders east Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling government troops since April.
The Kremlin has said that troops stationed in Rostov were participating in drills, but Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of fueling the insurgency with arms, expertise, and fighters, and have slapped Moscow with sanctions in response to its moves in the region.
Previous Russian claims of troop withdrawals have been countered by NATO. In March, Russia announced a troop withdrawal of only one battalion — a unit of about 500 — while NATO insisted that tens of thousands remained near the border.
In the spring, the U.S. and NATO said that Russia had deployed about 40,000 troops near the border, though Putin ordered the troops back to their home bases in late May. While the U.S. and NATO did confirm those moves, in August they said Russia was again bolstering its forces in the region and that Russia had allowed troops and vehicles to cross the border to assist the separatists.
As EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia begin to bite and economic growth falters, Moscow may also hope that a troop withdrawal will bolster the chance that Western nations will revoke those measures. Late last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the EU was still not considering removing the sanctions because of ongoing fighting in east Ukraine.
In Donetsk, the city center was quiet but explosions still rang out in the direction of the airport, where fighting between government troops and pro-Russian forces has waged despite a cease-fire declared Sept. 5.
Mstyslav Chernov in Donetsk, Ukraine, contributed reporting.