MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin says he is pulling troops out of border regions near Ukraine to help create a positive environment ahead of Ukraine's presidential vote — but adds that fighting with separatists there will make it hard for the Kremlin to deal with Ukraine's next leader.
The pullout was meant to create "favorable conditions for Ukraine's presidential vote and end speculation," Putin told reporters Wednesday in Shanghai, China, where he attended a security summit.
In comments broadcast on Russian television, Putin referred to U.S. and NATO remarks that they weren't seeing any sign of the Russian withdrawal, saying "those who aren't seeing it should look better."
"The numbers of troops and armor are quite large, and their pullout requires serious preparation. If the weather is good, they will see it all from space," Putin said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said military units in the regions near Ukraine should reach their home bases before June 1.
NATO, which estimates that Russia has 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, repeated Wednesday it could not yet see any signs of a Russian withdrawal.
Putin's pullout order and his statement welcoming the Ukraine's presidential election, which he had previously urged to postpone, has suggested that he has no immediate intention of sending the Russian army into eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian government forces for weeks.
But the Russian leader also said it will be "very difficult for us to develop relations with people who come to power amid a punitive operation in southeastern Ukraine."
Putin added that Russia has helped establish a dialogue between the central government in Kiev and people in the southeast, but did not elaborate.
Many in eastern Ukraine resent the new authorities in Kiev, who came to power after the toppling of Ukraine's pro-Russian president after months of protests. They see the new government as nationalists bent on repressing Russian-speakers.
Russia supports a peace plan brokered by Switzerland and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which envisages a broad amnesty and the launch of a national Ukrainian dialogue that focuses on decentralization of power and upholding the status of the Russian language. A third round table was held Wednesday in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
Russia favors decentralization for Ukraine because that way it can keep more influence over Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions.
The Kremlin-funded English-language satellite TV channel RT said Tuesday that one of its correspondents, Graham Phillips of Britain, was missing after being detained by Ukrainian security forces near Mariupol on Monday. Phillips told his employer he was being questioned.
Marina Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's Security Service, says Phillips will be brought to Kiev and handed over to the British consul.
Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the chief of the Russian Airborne Forces, said in televised remarks that battalions from three airborne divisions would return to their home bases within 10 days, but didn't specify how many troops that included.
The Ukrainian government and the West have seen the Russian military buildup near the border as a possible precursor for grabbing more land following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. The United States and the European Union slapped sanctions on members of Putin's entourage after Russia took Crimea, and have threatened more crippling sanctions if Moscow tries to invade eastern Ukraine or derail its presidential vote Sunday.
Putin on Wednesday sought to offset the Western pressure by visiting China, where he oversaw the signing of a $400 billion, 30-year deal to export Russian gas to China.
Meanwhile, clashes between the rebels and Ukrainian government forces continued Wednesday in eastern Ukraine.
There has been some pushback this week against the separatists. Ukraine's richest man, metals tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, has demanded an end to the mutiny, which he said is destroying the eastern industrial heartland. Angry local residents heckled a separatist commander in Slovyansk on Tuesday, exasperated over being caught in crossfire that is destroying their housing and endangering their lives.