No evidence of Russian Ukraine troop pullback: Nato

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives his monthly press conference on May 19, 2014 at the Residence Palace building in Brussels. Mr Rasmussen said on Monday he had seen no proof of Russian troops withdrawing from the border with Ukraine
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives his monthly press conference on May 19, 2014 at the Residence Palace building in Brussels. Mr Rasmussen said on Monday he had seen no proof of Russian troops withdrawing from the border with Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin announced an end to exercises and return to bases. -- PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Head of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday he had seen no proof of Russian troops withdrawing from the border with Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin announced an end to exercises and return to bases.

"Unfortunately, we have not seen any evidence at all that Russia has started withdrawal," Mr Rasmussen said, noting this was Mr Putin's third such statement on the troops, which Nato estimates number around 40,000.

On each occasion, "we have not seen any withdrawal," he said, adding that such a move would be an "important contribution to de-escalating the crisis".

Mr Putin ordered his troops back to barracks in a move some took to signal a readiness to ease tensions ahead of crucial presidential elections in Ukraine on Sunday. The Russian strongman has also demanded the Kiev government halt military operations against pro-Kremlin rebels in the country's east.

The presence of Russian troops on the border has stoked serious concern after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula in March and appeared ready to intervene to support other pro-Moscow separatist groups.

Mr Rasmussen told a briefing that Russian actions in Ukraine had brought about "a completely new security situation in Europe" after 20 years in which Nato had seen no "imminent threat."

"Now we have seen that Russia reserves the right to intervene... it is not just words ... (and) we have to adapt accordingly," he said.

In response to this "more dangerous" state of affairs, he urged Nato member states to halt cutbacks and instead live up to commitments to spend more on defence.

The military alliance will take up this issue at their next summit in September in Britain, he added.

Mr Rasmussen also called on Russia to support Ukraine's weekend presidential elections as the best hope of finding a political solution. There are doubts over whether poll will be held in the east of country and what impact this will have on the validity of the overall vote.

"Russia should demonstrate a clear will to let the elections go forward so they produce a (clear and fair) result," he said.