President Vladimir Putin raised doubts Wednesday about the legitimacy of Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election but said Russia is moving its troops away from the Ukrainian border to help create favorable conditions for Sunday's vote.
Speaking to reporters in Shanghai on the last day of a state visit to China, Putin said it will be difficult to build relations with people “who come to power against a backdrop of the continuing punitive operation in southeastern Ukraine...." - a reference to the Ukrainian government's security operations against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russian officials frequently refer to operations by Ukrainian forces as “punitive.” Ukrainian authorities have insisted the operations are part of legitimate efforts to protect the country's territorial integrity.
Both Kyiv and the West have accused Russia of being behind the separatist movements and fomenting the current unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Putin also accused Kyiv authorities of hindering the work of the press. He said two Russian journalists from the online portal LifeNews – widely seen as pro-Kremlin - who were detained by Ukrainian security forces on May 18 are being treated in an unacceptable manner, and that this could raise questions “about the legitimacy of all these political processes” in Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities say that portable anti-aircraft missiles were found in the trunks of the Russian journalists’ cars. Putin called that accusation "absolute rubbish and nonsense."
The Russian president said Ukraine would have gained more stability if it had held a referendum on a new constitution before holding presidential elections.
Russian officials have been suggesting a decentralization of power in Ukraine, even federalization, to give its eastern regions broader autonomy.
Kyiv has dismissed the suggestions as a veiled attempt by Moscow to destabilize Ukraine by boosting its own influence in the country’s mostly Russian-speaking east.
Troop movements in dispute
Putin also said he had ordered Russian troops out of training grounds not far from the border with Ukraine in order "to create additional benevolent conditions" for Sunday's presidential vote.
NATO and the U.S. say they still have not seen any signs of a Russian troop withdrawal.
“We have not seen any visible evidence of a withdrawal of Russian troops,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told a news conference on Wednesday during a visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Tuesday the Pentagon has seen small unit movements but no signs of a “wholesale withdrawal.”
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said Wednesday select units had spent 24 hours dismantling field camps, packing and preparing military vehicles and were now “moving toward train stations and airfields” to return to their bases, RIA news agency reported.
In comments broadcast on Russian television, Putin seemed to take issue with NATO and U.S. statements by saying that “those who aren't seeing [a withdrawal] should look better.” He added that satellite images would confirm the movements.
NATO and the U.S. estimate that Russia has amassed some 40,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.
Biden warns Moscow
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned that the United States could impose tougher sanctions on Russia if it undermines the Ukraine vote.
After meeting with Romanian President Traian Basescu in Bucharest, Biden spoke of potentially "imposing greater costs" on Russia.
Pro-Russian separatist leaders in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions say the presidential polls will not be held in those territories.
The U.S. vice president arrived in Bucharest on Tuesday as part of the Obama administration's campaign to reassure NATO allies of strong U.S. support in view of renewed East-West tensions triggered by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and perceived efforts by Moscow to destabilize its neighbor.
Speaking in Bucharest, Biden also reiterated U.S. condemnation of Russia's annexation of Crimea, saying European borders "should never again be changed at the point of a gun."
Some reporting by Reuters, AP.