In a rare move to de-escalate tensions, Putin says Ukraine's upcoming presidential poll is a 'step in the right direction.'
MOSCOW - Russia has pulled all of its troops from its border with Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, in a rare move to de-escalate tensions.
Putin urged Kiev to engage in dialogue with pro-Russian separatists in eastern provinces, while calling on separatists to delay a series of referendums scheduled for this weekend.
He also appeared to throw Russia's support behind Ukraine's upcoming presidential poll on May 25, calling it a "step in the right direction."
Kiev has looked vulnerable as the restive east show increasing signs of disconnect with the central government.
- Dialogue 'key element'
Putin addressed the media in a press conference in Moscow following his meeting with Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss president and current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"We were told repeatedly that there were concerns over our troops on the border with Ukraine. So we pulled them back," Putin told journalists.
But NATO officials said Wednesday they detected no change in the positions of Russian forces.
Putin said dialogue between the Ukrainian government and separatists was the "key element," as he called on separatist leaders to hold off referendums "so that conditions for the start of dialogue are created."
Putin backed Ukraine's presidential election but warned that rights should be a priority during political change.
"I would like to stress that the planned presidential election are a step in the right direction, but the election would solve nothing if all of the Ukrainian citizens fail to understand how their rights will be safeguarded after the election."
Burkhalter said Europe's 'roadmap' for Ukraine was ready and the organization would soon make it known to all parties in April.
He said the roadmap consisted of four stages: ensuring a ceasefire, de-escalating tensions, initiating dialogue and elections.
An accord between the U.S., the EU, Ukraine and Russia on April 17 called for a halt to violence and required demonstrators to vacate occupied public buildings, in addition to disarming militias and paramilitary units in Ukraine.
The sides have since exchanged blame on failing to fulfill the requirements of the deal, with the U.S. criticizing Russia for not doing enough to de-escalate tensions while Moscow denounced Kiev's military operations to restore control in eastern cities.
Meanwhile, separatists announced an exchange of hostages on Wednesday with Ukrainian authorities in the eastern city of Slavyansk.
Ukraine's security service confirmed that three members of its Alpha Force, who had been taken hostage in Donetsk on April 27, were released in exchange for Pavel Gubarev, the pro-Russia activist who headed the separatist movement in Donetsk before being arrested by Ukrainian officials in early March.
Ukraine was sent reeling after a pro-Russian political and military campaign in Crimea led to Russia's annexation of the peninsula in March.
The move followed the establishment of a new government in Ukraine after months of protests since November last year ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
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