WASHINGTON — Russia has begun pulling most of its roughly 40,000 troops away from its border with Ukraine, a move that U.S. and NATO officials called encouraging.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the movement of soldiers and equipment was promising but that all of the Russian troops shifted to the area since March needed to be withdrawn.
The troop movement this week was taken as a concrete sign that Moscow is de-escalating its confrontation with Ukraine, which began with the overthrow of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich in February and continued through recent separatist uprisings in Ukraine's east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the pullback Monday, saying the troops had concluded what he labeled military exercises. But with fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian troops continuing, U.S. officials are holding off on declaring the crisis over.
"We do know that thousands of Russian troops have been pulled back and are moving away, but we also know that there are thousands of Russian troops still there that have not yet moved," Hagel told reporters traveling with him in Singapore.
A U.S. defense official told the Los Angeles Times that satellite imagery and other intelligence indicated that Russian forces were packing up and leaving in large numbers.
In some places, the troops were preparing to load armored vehicles onto rail cars, a sign they were being transported back to bases away from the border, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence.
Seven Russian battalions — several thousand troops — remain in place near the border, officials said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said at an alliance meeting in Lithuania that NATO countries and Russia would meet Monday in Brussels to discuss Ukraine, the first face-to-face session since NATO froze relations with Moscow after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March.