MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Russian troops have pulled back from the Ukrainian border, as he seemingly dared the United States to confirm the troop movements using its spy satellites.
"This can be easily verified with modern means of reconnaissance. Everything can be," he said in remarks after meeting with the Swiss president.
The Pentagon, however, quickly rejected Putin's claims. "We've seen no change," spokesman Col. Steve Warren said when asked about the Russian president's comments.
Putin's claims came as he seemed to shift Russia's position. He called on separatists in east Ukraine to delay this Sunday's referendum on independence to allow time for dialogue with authorities from the fledgling government in Kiev.
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He also made an apparent about face on Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, now calling it "a step in the right direction."
"But this election will solve nothing unless all Ukrainian citizens understand the way their rights will be guaranteed," Putin quickly added.He said the Russian speaking population in southeastern Ukraine must "be sure that their rights will be reliably guaranteed even after the presidential election on May 25."The Kremlin had previously been vocally opposed to the election.
"Holding elections in a situation where the armed forces are being used against part of the population is rather unusual," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Tuesday, referring to the Ukrainian military's effort to oust armed separatists who have seized government buildings and even entire towns in the country's east.
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Putin gave no explanation for his apparent change in policy. His remarks reduced fears that Russian troops could cross the border to intervene in the increasingly bloody conflict.
At the same time, Putin reiterated Russia's demand that the Ukrainian army halt its offensive. He rejected the accusation by the United States and its allies that Russia holds sway over the separatists.
"As for the key to resolving the problem being in Russia - it is a ploy of our Western partners which has no grounds to it," he said. "We are not a party to this conflict."The Russian currency, the ruble, and the Moscow stock exchange both soared on the news after falling for months throughout the conflict.
Russian Troops Pull Back From Ukrainian Border, Putin Says