White House rejects Russian troop claims

 

The White House said Wednesday that there is "no evidence" that Russia has withdrawn the tens of thousands of troops amassed on the border with Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that he withdrew soldiers from the border, and such a move would be "welcome," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One, but it has not yet come to pass.

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“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of Russian military forces, and that is something we have sought for some time," Earnest said.

“I will say that to date there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.”

Earlier Wednesday, Putin said he was responding to calls from the U.S. and Europe to end military exercises along the Ukrainian border. The tens of thousands of amassed troops had stoked fears that Moscow could stage a full military invasion of the former Soviet republic.

“We’re always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them.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,” Putin said, according to Reuters.

Putin, in another move that may de-escalate tensions, also called on pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine to delay a referendum on autonomy slated for the weekend.

Earnest said the U.S. viewed that referendum as "illegitimate" and "illegal" and that Russian leaders should also offer a stronger endorsement of a national presidential election slated for May 25.

“We’d also like to see greater support for the ongoing effort by the Ukrainian government to hold free and fair elections on May 25," he said. "We would like to see the Russians contribute to the effort.”

During his remarks earlier Wednesday, Putin called the election a move "in the right direction," although Ukraine should implement broad constitutional reforms insuring the autonomy of ethnically Russian regions before staging the national vote.

Putin's gestures toward de-escalation came after President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated last week they would move ahead with broad, sectoral sanctions targeting the fragile Russian economy if they believed the Kremlin was undermining the May 25 vote.