MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin today ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.
Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in "planned spring drills" in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.
The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.
The United States and NATO said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin's earlier claim of a withdrawal, and NATO today said it didn't see any immediate movements to validate the latest assertions.
The Kremlin statement didn't say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.
Putin's move appears to represent an attempt to ease tensions with the West and avoid another round of crippling sanctions. The U.S. and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's entourage over Russia's annexation of Crimea. They threatened to target entire sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions if Russia tries to derail Ukraine's presidential vote set for Sunday.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said it was checking the information about the troops' withdrawal and urged Moscow to also cancel an air force exercise, set to take place in southwestern Russia between Wednesday and Sunday. It said the exercise -- which would involve more than 70 combat aircraft, including Tu-22M long-range bombers -- would fuel tensions during the vote.
Pro-Russian rebels, who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops, have declared two sprawling provinces independent and vowed to block Sunday's vote. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the mutiny, claims Russia has denied.
Facing Western pressure, Putin supported a peace plan for settling the crisis, which was brokered by the Swiss chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of the vote, by offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urging talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The OSCE also has sent an observer mission for the election.
The first round tables under the plan were held in Ukraine last week, but the government refused to invite representatives of rebels in the east, whom it dubbed "separatists" and "terrorists."