— Russia has withdrawn most of its troops from the Ukrainian border, but seven battalions, amounting to thousands of men, remain there, officials said Friday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in Singapore to attend a weekend security conference, has called the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from the border a promising sign, but said all troops positioned there earlier this year needed to be moved back.
The U.S.-led NATO military alliance and U.S. officials estimated Russia had up to 40,000 troops stationed along the border. A NATO military official said Thursday that more than two-thirds, or 27,000, had been pulled back.
The NATO military officer, who asked not to be identified, said most of the troops remaining in the border's vicinity "appear to be preparing to withdraw." However, he added, "some units continue to be capable of operations at short notice."
Hagel, speaking earlier on the plane taking him on a trip to Asia and Europe, said,
''Any time you are moving troops away and equipment and assets away, that's promising," he said, "but they are not where they need to be and won't be until all of their troops that they positioned along that border a couple of months ago are gone."
The NATO military officer elaborated: "Any withdrawal does not erase or reverse what has happened in recent months. Russia has staged a military takeover in Crimea, threatened Ukraine by massing troops along the border and supported armed separatist gangs in Eastern Ukraine.
"The security dynamic has been fundamentally changed."
The troops' pullback from the border does not answer questions about Russian forces that may be supporting pro-Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine.
The NATO officer said the organization "will continue to monitor the situation closely."
Ukraine's acting defense minister said Friday that Ukrainian forces would press ahead with a military offensive against rebels in the east until peace and order had been restored there.
Speaking after 14 servicemen, including a general, were killed on Thursday when rebels shot down an army helicopter, the minister, Mykhailo Koval, said: "Our given task is to bring peace and order to the region.''
VOA's Jeff Seldin contrinbuted to this report, with additional reporting from Reuters..