Russia has withdrawn a large number of troops from Ukraine, but maintains a significant force near the border that could quickly re-enter the country, NATO officials said Wednesday.
The assessment signaled growing confidence that the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels in the east and the south could be easing, at least for now. Still, a renewed bout of fighting remained a possibility, and NATO was keeping up its enhanced presence at the eastern borders of the alliance.
“We have seen a reduction in incidents and of Russian regular troops inside Ukraine,” Carmen Romero, a NATO spokeswoman, said in a statement. “But some Russian special forces remain in Ukraine, plus there remains a substantial Russian military presence on the border.
“So while we welcome all genuine efforts to achieve a peaceful solution, Russia is keeping the option to destabilize Ukraine,” she said.
On Sept. 5, the Ukrainian government and the separatists signed a cease-fire agreement laid out by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Russia has not acknowledged the presence of any military personnel on Ukrainian soil, but last month NATO said it had evidence that Russia was moving artillery units and soldiers across the border and firing on Ukrainian soldiers.
The statement did not say when the withdrawals began, but a military official in Europe who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence said they started after the cease-fire took effect. They began slowly and by the end of last week the majority of Russian troops had been withdrawn, the official said.
Exchanges of artillery fire and other hostilities between Ukrainian and separatist forces have also declined, according to a more detailed assessment from Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, the chief of media operations for the central command for NATO’s military forces.