- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2014

The White House on Monday disputed Vladimir Putin’s latest claim that Russian forces have begun to withdraw from the Ukrainian border, again calling into question whether the Russian president truly wants to de-escalate the situation or desires continued unrest ahead of Ukrainian elections on May 25.

For the second time in less than two weeks, the Kremlin on Monday announced that Russian troops are ending military exercises along the Ukrainian border and are returning to their bases. In a statement, Moscow also said it supports talks with Kiev, urged an end to violence and said the current conflict must be resolved “through peaceful means alone.”

But just as was the case May 7, when Mr. Putin previously claimed his forces were pulling back, the White House and the Pentagon, along with international organizations such as NATO, say there’s no proof Russian troops are on the move.

“We’ve seen reports of President Putin’s orders for some Russian troops who were deployed for exercises on the Ukrainian border to return to their permanent bases. But we’ve been clear about our call for the Russian military to de-escalate the tension there, so such a withdrawal would be welcome. At this point, we see no indication of any movement, which has been the case, as you note, several times before,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

“I think it’s fair to say that we would know and would be able to confirm for you if the Russian military had in fact moved back, deployed away from the Ukrainian border. But we have yet seen any indication that that’s the case,” he said.

Mr. Carney’s comments were echoed by the Pentagon, and by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who pointed out Mr. Putin’s recent history of making false claims about his forces’ movements.

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“I have to say that we haven’t seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian borders. Now, I think it’s the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all,” Mr. Rasmussen said during a press conference Monday. “I strongly regret that because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.”

Mr. Putin’s most recent claim also comes just days before a crucial election in Ukraine, one that could have a profound impact on the future of the embattled nation.

That also was the case May 7, when Mr. Putin made his comments just four days before two key regions in eastern Ukraine voted in favor of independence from Kiev. Mr. Putin called for that referendum, which was organized and supported by pro-Russian separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine, to be scrapped. Despite his words, it went ahead.

Now, Mr. Putin is claiming withdrawal less than a week before Ukrainians head to the polls for the first nationwide election since the country was plunged into chaos earlier this year.

Even though pro-Russian activists continue to occupy government buildings in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin also expressed a desire for talks between Kiev and the separatist forces.

“President Vladimir Putin welcomes the first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalization, seeking to establish direct dialogue in which all parties concerned should take part,” the Kremlin statement reads in part.

But in cities such as Donetsk, which voted earlier this month for autonomy from Ukraine’s central government, the presence of pro-Russian gunmen almost surely will affect the coming all-Ukraine elections. Citizens there say they’re fearful of retribution if they take part in that vote.

“No one is going to vote because no one wants to get a bullet in their forehead,” Donetsk resident Dmytro Zarubo told The Associated Press. “We’ve been threatened with this.”

About 15 percent of Ukraine’s population lives in areas mostly controlled by pro-Russian separatists, and international organizations say there has been virtually no campaigning in those areas.

Ukrainian officials also say armed men have taken control of election commission offices in eastern Ukraine.

If the elections go ahead as scheduled Sunday, pro-Moscow forces appear bent on stoking more violence in Donetsk and elsewhere. Further clashes with Ukrainian security forces are possible, if not likely.

“We will block the polling stations, bring in our own people and tell people the truth,” said pro-Russian activist Viktor Yermoshin, according to AP reports.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.



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