NATO says around 1,000 Russian troops remain inside Ukraine - a day after Ukraine's president reported that most of the Russian forces assisting separatists there had returned home.
President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday that 70 percent of the Russian troops in Ukraine had crossed back over the border, raising hopes the cease-fire agreement reached last week would hold.
A NATO military officer said Thursday the alliance has no information to that effect. The unnamed officer said such a development would be "a good first step."
The officer said there are also still "substantial amounts of military equipment" in eastern Ukraine, and approximately 20,000 troops on the Russian side of the border.
Moscow has denied sending its troops or military hardware into Ukraine, even though separatist leaders said they were being helped by Russian soldiers who used their vacation time to battle Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian soil.
Many observers believe the intervention of Russian forces in the fighting in eastern Ukraine turned the tide in favor of the rebels, who until just a few weeks ago were losing ground to government forces.
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council reported Thursday that separatist forces have extended the territory they control along Ukraine's border with Russia southward to the Sea of Azov.
Russia blasts planned NATO drill
Russia has harshly criticized planned NATO-led exercises in Ukraine, saying the drill threatens to undermine ongoing peace efforts.
“In this context, it is surprising that plans have been announced for NATO member countries to conduct large-scale exercises with Kyiv on Ukrainian territory later this year. Such actions are truly fraught with an apparent desire to escalate tensions, and threaten to derail any progress that has been achieved in the peace process in Ukraine,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, according to a ministry statement.
Lukashevich added that this seems to be in line with NATO's strategy to place on Russia the "lion's share of the blame for what is happening in Ukraine so as to justify.... the alliance's strengthening of its military presence near Russia's borders.”
He said that Russia would “react appropriately” to such actions.
Lukashevich was apparently referring to exercises “Rapid Trident,” will are scheduled to be held September 15-26 in western Ukraine. According to the Pentagon, about 1,300 personnel from 15 countries are due to take part in the drill, including 200 U.S. soldiers.
U.S. military officials have referred to the maneuvers as a “peacekeeping exercise” aimed at increasing interoperability among the United States, Ukraine and other participating nations.