Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his defence minister to pull thousands of troops from the border with Ukraine, ahead of key talks on a fragile truce in the ex-Soviet country.
Russia is facing its most serious international isolation since the end of the Cold War, with the economy in tatters, intensified capital flight and an increasingly weakening rouble following Western sanctions.
The order, the Kremlin said, meant that 17,600 servicemen who had participated in summer drills in the southern Rostov region on the border with Ukraine would be pulled back.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu received the order after reporting that “summertime training on military ranges of the southern military district is over”, the Kremlin said.
The weekend meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Shoigu took place after the President chaired a meeting of his national security council at his Black Sea resident in Sochi, said the Kremlin.
Kiev has reported that attacks by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine have subsided.
The rebels and Ukrainian military in the eastern Donetsk region said they had agreed to a no-shooting period, and the army announced “progress” in negotiations and readiness to pull back forces.
Mr Putin will meet Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko for talks on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe meeting in Milan on Friday. The talks, which also will address the two countries’ long-running gas dispute, will include the prime ministers of Italy and Britain as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I don’t expect that these will be easy negotiations,” Mr Poroshenko said on Saturday. “We are very close to regulating the issue of the gas dispute with Russia right now,” he added.
Ahead of their meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry will hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Paris on Tuesday. Ukraine is expected to be high on the agenda.
The US, EU and other countries have slapped sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and its backing of the pro-Russian separatists.