By Justin Sink - 05/19/14 10:16 AM EDT
The United States is closely tracking reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops on the Ukrainian border to return to their bases, a senior administration official said Monday.
The official said a draw-down would be "welcome," but noted that Russia has said it would remove troops from the area before. Two weeks ago, Putin said the troops had already been returned to "places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds."
In a statement issued earlier Monday, the Kremlin signaled Putin had ordered the draw-down of tens of thousands of Russian troops that had amassed across the border from Ukraine.
"Following completion of the spring military training programs that involved troop redeployment and exercises at test grounds in Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, Mr. Putin sent the order to the Defense Minister for troops that took part in these exercises to return to their usual garrisons and continue their training at neighboring test grounds," the Kremlin said in a statement.
The order may be a bid by Russia to calm tensions ahead of this weekend's Ukrainian presidential election to replace ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych.
The U.S. and its Western allies have pointed to the election as a chance for Ukraine to usher in a new government with the legal authority to address the grievances of pro-Russian militants who have seized government buildings and set up roadblocks in the country's southern and eastern provinces.
But fears that Russia will interfere with the elections remain pervasive, and the military buildup along the Ukrainian border has U.S. allies concerned that Moscow could stage a military invasion.
The Kremlin's statement also signaled support for initial talks between pro-Russian separatists and the government in Kiev, in another signal that Putin may be looking to calm tensions in the region.
"President Vladimir Putin welcomes the first contacts between Kiev and supporters of federalization, seeking to establish direct dialogue in which all parties concerned should take part," the Kremlin said.