Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to withdraw to their permanent bases after military exercises in Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said, in a sign of easing tensions before a key meeting next week.
The troop pullout came before an expected meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Milan later this week.
The Kremlin said that the Russian president had met his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.
“The minister had reported to the Supreme Commander about the completion of summer period of training on shooting ranges of the southern military district,” said a statement on the Kremlin’s web site.
“After the report, Putin ordered to launch the return of the troops to their permanent bases. In total, these are 17,600 military servicemen who were trained on the shooting ranges of Rostov region in summer.”
Citing the defence ministry, Russian RIA Novosti news agency said that the troops have already started to pull out.
Relations between Moscow and the NATO alliance are at a post-Cold War low over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimean peninsula in Marc,h and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The West has introduced a wide range of sanctions against Russian banks, energy companies, and individuals for Moscow’s role in the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.
A month ago, NATO said Russia had several thousand combat troops, and hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles in eastern Ukraine, supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian army.
Russia denies the charges, but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region’s Russian-speaking majority.
The alliance said at the end of last month it had observed a significant pullback of Russian conventional forces from inside Ukraine since an uneasy ceasefire began on 5 September.
The Kremlin has said Putin and Poroshenko may hold talks on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan on 16-17 October.
Alexei Makarkin, from the Center for Political Technologies think tank, told Echo Moskvy radio that the troop pullout is probably one of the compromises between Russia and Ukraine.
“I think it could be about lifting part of the Western sanctions against Russia as a response to these decisions,” he said.
NATO leaders made clear at a summit in Wales that their military alliance would not use force to defend Ukraine, which is not a member, but planned tougher economic sanctions to try to change Russian behaviour in the former Soviet republic.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the 4-5 September NATO summit, also took centre stage at the 30 August EU summit, where he said that the EU's agenda from now on would largely revolve around Ukraine.
>> Read: Poroshenko: The EU's agenda now revolves around Ukraine
At the summit, some EU leaders reportedly spoke about the need of military assistance to Ukraine, many demanded tougher sanctions, but reportedly Slovakia, Hungary and Cyprus made it clear they oppose further sanctions which they claim would hurt their countries more than Russia.
The new EU sanctions that became effective on 12 September would limit access by Russian oil companies to funds. Similar sanctions from the United States adopted on the same day hit Russia's biggest bank and an arms maker, and bar U.S. firms from helping five big Russian oil companies explore hard to reach deposits.
Moscow has already responded to sanctions by banning the import of most Western food. It said it could take further measures and might appeal to the World Trade Organisation.
- 16-17 October: Asia-Europe meeting in Milan