* Russia says troops, equipment leaving three border
* Putin ordered pullback on Monday, saying exercises over
* Pentagon sees small-scale movement, but large force
(Adds Pentagon comments)
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, May 23 Russia will pull back all forces
deployed to regions near its border with Ukraine "within a few
days," a deputy defence minister said on Friday, a move that if
carried out could ease tensions around Ukraine's presidential
election on Sunday.
Moscow has concentrated tens of thousands of troops across
the border from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists
have declared two independent states. The United States said a
"very large and very capable" Russian force remained on Friday.
Kiev and its Western allies see the Russian troops as a
potential invasion force should Moscow choose to back the rebels
openly, fuelling pre-election tensions. The United States and
European Union hope the vote will strengthen the embattled
Asked whether Russia would comply with Western calls for a
withdrawal of its troops near the Ukraine frontier, Deputy
Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov told Reuters: "They will see it
- 100 percent ... We will leave less than nothing behind."
The United States said it was not yet convinced.
The Pentagon said it had seen Russian military units
withdrawing from the border on a small scale, but it was too
early to tell whether that movement represented the broader
withdrawal ordered by the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We have actually seen the movement of some units away from
the border region, apparently back to what we would consider
garrison, their home base. But it's not in great number right
now," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
He could not say how long it should take the Russian troops
to withdraw, but added: "I can tell you they got there in a
hurry so it's certainly our expectation that this order to
withdraw will be followed with some sense of alacrity. That's
what we would like to see."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was
"too early to know where or how many of these forces are
actually moving out for good."
"And regardless ... the force that remains on the border is
very large and very capable and remains in a very coercive
position and posture," Harf said.
The Kremlin said on Monday that President Putin had ordered
his defence chief to return troops that had taken part in
military exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk
provinces, which share a border with Ukraine, to their permanent
On Friday, Antonov said Russia had so far moved 20 transport
planes and 20 trains carrying personnel and military equipment
out of the three provinces, and that a full withdrawal of the
forces could be completed "within a few days."
A Defence Ministry source later echoed that statement,
saying troops and equipment would be fully moved out of the
border area in the course of a few days, but added it would take
about 20 days to return the forces to their permanent bases.
Russia has not said how many troops it is withdrawing from
areas near the Ukrainian border. The United States and NATO have
said Russia amassed some 40,000 troops near the frontier.
(Additonal reporting by Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by
Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Steve Gutterman
and Lisa Shumaker)