* Defence Ministry says troops begin leaving border areas
* NATO, United States say no sign yet of withdrawal
(Adds White House, Pentagon comments, paragraphs 1, 7-9)
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, May 21 Russia said on Wednesday that
troops deployed for exercises near the Ukrainian border had
dismantled equipment and were moving to train stations and
airfields for return to their permanent bases, but the United
States and NATO said they saw no clear signs of a pullout.
The Kremlin said on Monday that President Vladimir Putin had
told his defence chief to order troops to pull back from the
frontier with Ukraine, where eastern regions have fallen largely
under the control of pro-Russian rebels.
After spending a day dismantling field camps, packing and
preparing military vehicles, forces in the Rostov, Belgorod and
Bryansk provinces "have begun to move toward train stations and
airfields", the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
It said troops were returning to their permanent bases, but
did not specify how many troops were leaving the area and made
no mention of two other provinces that border eastern Ukraine.
A withdrawal, cooling Western fears of a any immediate
Russian intervention, could ease tension before Sunday's
presidential election in Ukraine. The United States and EU hope
the vote will strengthen the central government in Kiev, which
is fighting pro-Moscow separatists in the east.
NATO has said Russia had amassed some 40,000 troops near the
border, adding to tension since Russia's annexation of the
Crimea region which brought relations to a post-Cold War low.
The White House and the Pentagon acknowledged activity on
the border but said it was too early to determine whether it
pointed to a pullout, or just more repositioning.
"It's impossible at this early stage to tell whether or not
this movement that we're seeing is simply more of the same or if
this is preparations for a broader withdrawal," said Colonel
Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "Should this be the
beginning of a withdrawal we would welcome such an effort."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on
Wednesday that the alliance had still seen no "visible evidence"
of a Russian troop withdrawal from the border.
"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,"
Rasmussen told a news conference in Sarajevo.
SET THE CLOCK BACK
Putin has reserved the right to send the military into
Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers who dominate in the east.
Russia's Rostov province borders the Ukrainian regions of
Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists have seized
government buildings in several cities and held referendums on
secession this month. Rebel leaders say some 80 percent voted
for a break with Kiev.
The deputy chairman of NATO's Military Committee said even
if there were a pullback relations with Russia had already been
damaged by the Ukraine crisis.
"You can't quite set the clock back and pretend nothing
happened in the last two months ... We will have to reset to a
new reality," Lieutenant General Mark Schissler said.
"The world is now a different place because of what's gone
on, and in particular the continent of Europe is a different
place," Schissler said.
"NATO had an aspiration to have a Europe that was free,
whole and at peace. At risk now is being whole; at risk is being
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Brussels, Phil Stewart
and Steve Holland in Washington and Daria Sito-Sucic in
Sarajevo; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel, Robin Pomeroy and