Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that his troops have pulled back from the Ukraine border, a move seemingly intended to lower the heat on the simmering crisis but whose veracity remains to be seen.
"We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border," Putin said after meeting Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, the New York Times reports. "We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds."
Putin urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to delay a scheduled May 11 referendum on the future of the region. "Russia urgently appeals to the authorities in Kiev to cease immediately all military and punitive operations in southeast Ukraine," Putin also told reporters following his meeting with Burkhalter, according to the Kremlin's website. "This is not an effective means of resolving internal political conflicts and, on the contrary, will only deepen the division. We appeal too, to representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalization to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance."
Despite Putin's assurances that forces have withdrawn from the border, a NATO military official said here's no sign to suggest Russia has actually moved its troops, Reuters reports. "We have no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border," the unnamed official said.
Russia had placed 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border earlier this year after protestors pushed out President Viktor Yanukovych. Pro-Russian militants have occupied several buildings in eastern cities and remain locked in sporadic fighting with Ukrainian forces.