Russian actions don't match pullback rhetoric

President Vladimir Putin said Russia is testing its army’s combat readiness, ramping up tensions after pledging a pullback from Ukraine’s border. Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine vowed to press ahead with autonomy votes.

NATO said there’s no sign of any Russian withdrawal from the frontier. The Russian leader’s latest statement came less than 24 hours after a shift of tone on Ukraine, in which he urged the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to postpone balloting scheduled for May 11.

“Today’s planned exercises will involve all of the armed forces across Russia, including our nuclear deterrent,” Putin said at the Defense Ministry in Moscow, where he watched the drills by video link.

Russia has massed about 40,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The government in Kiev and its U.S. and European allies accuse Russia of fomenting separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine and warn that Putin may follow his annexation of Crimea with another land grab against his neighbor.

Yesterday’s pronouncements by Putin sparked a rally on Russian and Ukrainian financial markets. Today, Russia’s Micex equity index was 0.1 percent higher at 4:46 p.m. in Moscow. The ruble declined 0.6 percent to 41.3105 against the central bank’s target dollar-euro basket.

Missile Launches

As part of the military drills, Russian nuclear submarines carried out two successful ballistic-missile launches, while air-space defense forces repelled a mock nuclear strike, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Aleksandr Maltsev, a spokesman for the separatists’ “Donetsk People’s Republic,” said by phone that the autonomy referendum in the region will go ahead as planned. A similar decision was announced in Luhansk. Even so, the pro-Russian organizers don’t have access to the electoral register and other voting infrastructure.

The referendums “would have no democratic legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation” in Ukraine, Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Brussels.

‘Stay Skeptical’

The latest events are “just Putin shadow-boxing,” Shada Islam, a director at the Friends of Europe policy-advisory group in Brussels, said by phone. “The West is so desperate for any sign of a softening of Russia’s hardline stance that some people will believe it. He’s pulled this kind of thing before and Europe must stay skeptical about words and wait for deeds -- for facts on the ground, like a verified troop pullback from the Ukrainian border.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was no sign of the withdrawal Putin pledged yesterday.

“We haven’t seen any indications that they’re pulling back their troops,” he told a news conference in Warsaw with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. “If there’s visible evidence, I’ll be the first to welcome it.”

Tusk said he’d discussed the situation in east Ukraine by phone with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who confirmed NATO’s “cautious skepticism” about any Russian troop movements.

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russian companies and individuals and threatened to tighten them if Putin doesn’t end his support for the separatists.

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