* NATO, U.S. say have not seen signs of withdrawal
* Ukraine sees decrease in Russian military activity
* Russia welcomes Ukraine talks, repeats demand for pullback
(Adds White House comments, Russia-NATO conversation)
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, May 19 The Kremlin announced on Monday
President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian forces near Ukraine
back to their bases, but NATO and the United States said they
saw no sign of a pullback and Moscow had failed to carry out
such promises before.
Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops near the
border regions where pro-Russian separatists have declared
independent states, and Kiev and its Western allies fear they
could be used to invade in support of the rebels.
Ukraine holds a presidential election on Sunday which
Western countries consider a crucial event in resolving the
country's crisis. The United States and EU have threatened to
ramp up sanctions on Moscow if it interferes in the vote.
Ukrainian border guards said there had indeed been a
decrease in Russian military activity close to the border. But
the United States and the Western military alliance said there
was no indication troops had pulled back.
"Unfortunately, I have to say that we haven't seen any
evidence at all that the Russians have started a withdrawal of
troops from the Ukraine borders," NATO Secretary-General Anders
Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference in Brussels.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States had
seen reports Putin had ordered Russian troops back to bases but
"at this point we see no indication of any movement".
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told Reuters: "We
have seen no indication of any movement."
A Reuters cameraman saw over a dozen tanks leaving a
training ground in the Rostov region. Russian state television
also showed pictures of a similar number of tanks leaving a
training facility in the Belgorod region.
Putin declared the right to send forces to Ukraine to
protect Russian-speakers if necessary in March and quickly
annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, after a pro-Russian president
was toppled in street demonstrations in Kiev in February.
Armed rebels, many led by a Muscovite enthusiast of
historical battle re-enactments, have seized towns and cities in
eastern Russia and held a vote on independence which Western
countries describe as a sham.
SECURITY IN EUROPE
NATO and the United States say previous Russian pledges to
pull back troops - including an announcement by Putin himself on
May 7 that they had already been withdrawn - produced no
"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," Rasmussen said on Monday. "I strongly regret that, because
a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important
contribution to de-escalating the crisis."
Russia's top general in turn accused NATO in a telephone
conversation with the chairman of NATO's Military Committee of
failing to help security in Europe through its increased
military presence near the Russian border.
"Army General Valery Gerasimov expressed concern over a
substantial increase of NATO military activity near the Russian
border, which does not contribute to security in Europe," a
Russian defence ministry statement said.
The United States has sent 600 soldiers to the three former
Soviet Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and
Poland to take part in exercises to bolster NATO's presence in
In a sign of the lingering tensions, Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov said ties with the European Union and
NATO needed a "substantial rethink" in light of the differences
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered troops in the three
provinces of Rostov, Bryansk and Belgorod, which border Ukraine,
to return to their "places of permanent deployment". It did not
say how many soldiers would be moved away from border regions.
Ukraine's border guards did not speak directly about a
withdrawal but said they had noticed a decrease in activity by
Russian forces across the frontier.
"Before, we would see 10 or more aircraft flying along the
border in a 24-hour period, and military vehicles would come
directly up to the border. Now there are no such instances,"
border guards spokesman Oleh Slobodyan said.
In another conciliatory signal, Putin welcomed what the
Kremlin called initial contacts between the Ukrainian government
and "supporters of federalisation" who want more power for
largely Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone conversation
with Putin on Monday said she welcomed the start of dialogue in
Ukraine and the first round table sessions, a German government
Lavrov said Russia welcomed talks that have brought the
government in Kiev together with regional representatives but
voiced concern the pro-Western government could be using the
talks as a "smokescreen" while pushing through constitutional
reforms that would fail to give the provinces enough autonomy.
Kiev, for its part, fears the Kremlin wants to weaken the
central authorities and ensure Russia has sway over eastern
regions by granting them strong powers.
Putin and Lavrov both reiterated Russia's demand that Kiev
end what the Kremlin calls a "punitive operation" against the
separatists and pull back its troops. Kiev has launched a
military operation against the rebels but has failed to dislodge
them from their main bases in eastern cities.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels, Steve
Holland, Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington, Thomas
Grove and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow and Natalia Zinets in
Kiev, Writing by Steve Gutterman and Thomas Grove, Editing by