7 May 2014

Putin says Russian troops withdrawn from Ukraine border

Vladimir Putin claims that Russia has withdrawn 40,000 troops from Ukraine’s border – but Nato says there is “no indication” of this.

The Russian president said on Wednesday that the troops had been withdrawn due to international concerns.

“We’re always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern,” the Interfax news agency reported Mr Putin as saying.

“We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds.”

However, a Nato military official commented a short while later that there was “no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border.”

Nato and Russia have disagreed before over Russia’s military presence at Ukraine’s border. In April there was a dispute after Nato released satellite images showing Russian troops at the border.

Mairupol control

Earlier, Ukrainian troops pushed into Mariupol and retook a municipal building – only for it to fall back into pro-Russian hands.

Government soldiers took the rebel-held city hall in Mariupol overnight and hoisted the Ukrainian flag – but then withdrew from the building.

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum, who is on the ground in the western Ukrainian port city, has found the building once again occupied by a pro-Russian group. She photographed the Ukrainian flag being burned in barrels at the front of the building.

On Wednesday morning, pro-Russian activists were rebuilding barricades outside the building and playing patriotic songs through loudspeakers.

The move by government soldiers comes ahead of a pro-Russian run referendum on Sunday, which Kiev has said is illegal. The Ukrainian government fears that the referendum could be seen as a pretext for Russian annexation – as happened in Crimea.

‘Trampling rights’

Russia denies any such ambition but reserves the right to send in troops if it deems Russian-speaking Ukrainians are in danger from what it calls Ukrainian extremists and fascists.

On Wednesday, the Russian foreign ministry called on Ukraine’s government to immediately stop “the use of force against its own people”.

“The illegitimate authorities in Kiev go on crudely trampling on widely-recognised rights, with the connivance of their Western patrons,” the ministry said in a statement.

On Wednesday William Hague visited Ukraine in what he said was a “show of support” for Ukrainian democracy.

He said it was “clear that the leading elements of these forces… are not simply pro-Russian”, but are in fact Russian. He said this could be told from the way they conduct themselves, the tactics on show, and the similarities with elements seen in Crimea.

Mr Hague said Russia was “co-ordinating and instigating violence” in Ukraine, and said Russia was also orchestrating a PR campaign to “discredit” the Ukrainian government.

“This is about Ukraine’s right to be a successful and free nation… to be free to decide your own future,” he said.

On Monday, Nato’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia was “deeply involved” in destabilising Ukraine.

Dialogue and negotiation

Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko dismissed the forthcoming referendum following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and called for further sanctions against Russia.

“If Russia will support this referendum we need absolutely agreed action about the third wave of sanctions, well coordinated between the United States of America and the European Union,” he said.

Meanwhile the European Union said it was open to holding more talks between Ukraine, Russia and the US in order to try and defuse the crisis.

“What we are doing is keep(ing) open the track of negotiations and dialogue,” Herman van Rompuy said.

“We are even open to the idea of a second Geneva meeting. We are open to this idea and will work with colleagues on the possibility of it.”