MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to withdraw to their permanent bases after military exercises in Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said, in a sign of some tension easing before a key meeting next week.
The troop pullout came before an expected meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko in Milan next week.
The Kremlin said that the Russian president had met his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
"The minister had reported to the Supreme Commander about the completion of summer period of training on shooting ranges of the southern military district," said a statement on the Kremlin's web site.
"After the report, Putin ordered to launch the return of the troops to their permanent bases. In total, these are 17,600 military servicemen who were trained on the shooting ranges of Rostov region in summer."
Russian RIA Novosti news agency, citing the defense ministry, said that the troops have already started to pull out.
Relations between Moscow and the NATO alliance are at a post-Cold War low over Russia's actions in Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimean peninsula in March and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The West has introduced a wide range of sanctions against Russian banks, energy companies and individuals for Moscow's role in the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.
A month ago, NATO said Russia had several thousand combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles in eastern Ukraine supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian army.
Russia denies the charges but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region's Russian-speaking majority.
The alliance said at the end of last month it had observed a significant pullback of Russian conventional forces from inside Ukraine since an uneasy ceasefire began on Sept. 5.
The Kremlin has said Putin and Poroshenko may hold talks on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan on Oct. 16-17.
Alexei Makarkin from the Center for Political Technologies think-tank told Echo Moskvy radio that the troop pullout is probably one of the compromises between Russia and Ukraine.
"I think it could be about lifting part of the Western sanctions against Russia as a response to these decisions," he said.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Stephen Powell)