Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that he has ordered Russian troops to pull out of three towns bordering Ukraine, though NATO members say they see no evidence of the movement.
According to a statement released by the Kremlin, troops that had been performing exercises at the border towns of Rostov, Bryansk ,and Belgorod were ordered to return to their “places of permanent deployment.” It's not clear how many of the approximately 40,000 stationed men were asked to withdraw.
This is not the first time, however, that Putin said that he had ordered troops to pull back from locations near Ukraine. The president made a similar pronouncement on May 7, which was met with the same skepticism by global leaders when NATO officials on the ground said that there appeared to be no reduction in troops. Now, also, an unnamed NATO officer told Reuters that "We haven't seen any movement to validate (the report)."
But this time, it seems that Putin may have an actual incentive to ease some pressure off of its neighbor. According to the New York Times, one candidate running for office in Kiev has caught the Kremlin's attention, and could become something of an ally if he is voted the country's next president. Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy pro-Western candidate who has business interests in Russia, is now a favorite to win the May 25 election. The Chocolate King, who made his billions in confection manufacture, is likely to face off with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from prison when ousted president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.
If Poroshenko is victorious in the election, it could solve a lot of problems for Russia, according to Ukraine expert Adrian Karatnycky, who told the Times that, from Putin's perspective, "you can have a kind of a civil war and this kind of gray zone and be completely separated and face a higher degree of economic sanctions... or you can see if it’s possible to bargain with this new guy, who has businesses in Russia, who has never been known to be a big ultranationalist.” Karatnycky adds, “The reasoning on Poroshenko is that he is a pragmatist and he was in the Yanukovych government... he is a person who is a dealmaker. From that point of view, it may mean that Putin is willing to give it a chance of trying to get something out of this.”
It should be noted, however, that the last president to make a deal with Russia over the EU was forced out of the country, so if Poroshenko backs down from his support of European integration he could face a harsh political end.