Russia is in the process of pulling back around two thirds of
the troops it had close to the border with Ukraine, NATO
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, a far more
significant withdrawal than NATO has previously estimated.
Rasmussen also announced that ambassadors from Russia and
NATO countries would meet in Brussels on Monday (local time)
for the first time since March 5, soon after Moscow provoked
the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War by seizing
Ukraine's Crimea region.
Taken together, the two announcements could point to a slight
easing of tensions between the Western military alliance and
Russia over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and what NATO sees
as Russian interference in eastern Ukraine.
NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in April
in protest at its annexation of Crimea, but left the door
open to contacts at ambassadorial level or higher, to allow
the two sides to discuss ways out of the crisis.
Monday's meeting is expected to discuss the security
situation in and around Ukraine, a NATO official said.
"We have seen signs of at least a partial withdrawal. Our
estimate is that around two thirds of Russian troops have
been or are being pulled back," Rasmussen told Reuters on the
sidelines of a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in
the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Rasmussen's assessment was in line with earlier comments by a
U.S. defence official that Russia had withdrawn most of its
troops from the Ukrainian border, but that seven battalions,
amounting to thousands of men, remained.
NATO estimated that, at the peak, Russia had around 40,000
troops massed close to the Ukraine border. A NATO military
officer said on Wednesday that thousands of them had
withdrawn, but tens of thousands remained.
SUBSTANTIAL FORCE REMAINS
Despite the withdrawal, Rasmussen said that Russia still had
substantial forces along the Ukrainian borders that were
ready to intervene if ordered to do so by Moscow.
"We welcome what we have seen but we continue to urge Russia
to pull back all troops from the Ukrainian border," Rasmussen
In comments to a Lithuanian broadcaster, Rasmussen called on
Moscow to "stop supporting armed pro-Russian gangs and seal
the border so that we don't see arms and fighters crossing
Ukraine's government said on Friday it would press ahead with
a military offensive against separatists, despite a deadly
attack on an army helicopter amid reports that fighters from
Russia have been involved in rebellions in the east.
Answering questions from members of the NATO Parliamentary
Assembly, made up of national members of parliament from the
28 NATO states, Rasmussen said NATO must adapt to the new
kind of warfare Russia had practiced in Ukraine, which he
said included covert military operations and disinformation
All or part of NATO's rapid reaction force, the NATO Response
Force, should be on very high alert and ready to deploy very
quickly, and the role of allied special operations forces
would be even more important in future, Rasmussen said.