Ukraine sees letup in tensions, but vote at risk

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DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) - Days before Ukraine’s presidential elections, the interim government Wednesday relished what felt like a letup in tensions.

President Vladimir Putin insisted Russian troops have begun moving away from Ukraine’s borders, and the nation’s wealthiest and arguably most influential businessman made an impassioned appeal for a cessation to unrest in the east.

And yet, armed pro-Russian insurgents in turbulent eastern regions of Ukraine continued to roam with impunity and do their utmost to derail Sunday’s decisive vote.

Speaking to reporters at a security summit in Shanghai, Putin said Moscow’s decision to de-escalate its military presence near Ukraine was motivated by a desire to see the election proceed smoothly.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its military units in the regions near Ukraine have started moving to railway stations and airfields en route to their home bases, which they are expected to reach before June 1.

But NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, repeated that it didn’t yet see any signs of a Russian withdrawal.

“We have heard the third announcement from President Putin of withdrawal of Russian troops and I wake up every morning hoping to see a real and meaningful withdrawal of Russian troops, but I have to tell you that so far we have not seen any visible evidence of a withdrawal of Russian troops,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a visit to Sarajevo.

In comments broadcast on Russian television, Putin poured scorn on skeptical assertions about troop movements, saying “those who aren’t seeing it should look better.” He said the pullout will be clearly visible in satellite images.

“The numbers of troops and armor are quite large, and their pullout requires serious preparation. If the weather is good, they will see it all from space,” Putin said.

He sought to offset Western pressure by visiting China, where he oversaw the signing of a $400 billion, 30-year deal to export Russian gas to China.

The pullout decision appears to reflect the Kremlin’s desire to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and avoid further sanctions.

Putin warned, however, that it would be “very difficult for us to develop relations with people who come to power amid a punitive operation in southeastern Ukraine.”

That was a reference to ongoing efforts by Ukraine’s armed forces to crush the armed wing of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, which last week declared independence for the region following a contentious referendum. Insurgents in the neighboring Luhansk region have also claimed independence, but stopped short of requesting annexation by Russia, as rebels did in Donetsk.

Putin said Russia has helped establish a dialogue between the central government in Kiev and people in the southeast, but didn’t give any details.

Many in eastern Ukraine resent the interim authorities in Kiev that came to power after the toppling of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in the wake of months-long protests. They see the new government as a group of nationalists bent on repressing Russian-speakers.

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