US casts doubt on Putin's troop withdrawal claim

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a joint news conference in Moscow, May 7, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a joint news conference in Moscow, May 7, 2014.

The United States is casting serious doubts on Russia’s claims that its military has pulled back from the Ukrainian border.

“We have seen no change in the Russian force posture along the border,” Pentagon spokesperson Col. Steve Warren said on Wednesday.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One, "To date there's been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place."  But, he added, the White House would "certainly welcome" such a step. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted earlier in the day that his country has withdrawn troops. He also called on pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country to delay a referendum planned for Sunday.

“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Putin said following a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter. “They are not now on Ukrainian territory, but at locations here they conduct regular drills at ranges."

The Kremlin had stationed about 40,000 troops after demonstrators pushed President Viktor Yanukovich on Feb. 28 despite NATO and others calling on Russia to immediately withdraw. The separatists argue the new government is illegitimate because it was created after Yanukovich was illegally ousted and have engaged in deadly clashes with Ukrainian troops.

Pro-Russian militants who have taken over several public buildings in eastern Ukraine want to hold a referendum on the region on Sunday. A similar referendum in March concerning the Crimean region in Ukraine resulted in the annexation of the area by Moscow.

Putin on Wednesday had said a postponement was necessary to “create proper conditions for this dialogue.’

Russia Today reported that pro-Russian activist Denis Pushilin, a self-proclaimed leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the “people’s council” would discuss the possibility of a delay.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that it could face increased sanctions if it tries to intervene in the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine. He is expected to meet with his European counterparts next week to discuss the crisis.

Kerry said pro-Russian separatists were trying to “contrive a bogus independence referendum,” adding “The choice is Russia’s. We are going to stand united in support of Ukraine.”