Russian military officials now say their promised withdrawal of 40,000 troops from Ukraine’s borders will not be completed until weeks after Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.
They say the withdrawal is likely to be completed around the time that a second round vote would take place if no single candidate wins an outright majority in the May 25 vote.
The acknowledgment came two days before the scheduled first round of voting in Ukraine.
U.S. and European officials have expressed concerns that the Russian troop presence on the border is destabilizing the election by emboldening pro-Russian separatists who are battling against state forces after seizing government buildings in several towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed on three separate occasions that he ordered a complete withdrawal of Russian forces away from border regions where they were deployed when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year.
The Pentagon on May 23 confirmed small scale movements of Russian troops away from the border, but said it is too early to say whether a full scale withdrawal is underway.
Speaking at an international business forum in St. Petersburg on May 23, Putin said Russia also wants “some calming of the situation, and we will respect the choice of Ukrainian people."
But Putin stopped short of declaring the May 25 election legitimate.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on May 23 called on Russia to use its influence with separatists and urge them "to cease their violent activities and lay down their arms” ahead of the May 25 vote.
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that a successful presidential election in Ukraine will be a major step toward reducing tensions and restoring political stability there.
Ashton said: "Election authorities must be allowed to conduct elections without hindrance throughout the country and domestic and international observers must be allowed to fully fulfill their function."
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in an official video statement on May 23 that Ukraine’s “enemies have done everything they could to destabilize the situation and disrupt the elections” during the last three months.
“But,” Turchynov said, “Ukrainians are stronger and wiser."
It was at a security conference in Moscow on May 23 that General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, announced that it will take 20 days for Russian troops in regions bordering Ukraine to return to their permanent bases.
Earlier on May 23, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonovay had said that all forces would leave the border regions “within days.”
Candidates vying to become Ukraine's next president held their final campaign rallies on May 23, one day after the Ukrainian Army suffered heavy losses to pro-Russian separatists in the east.
The election pits front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old confectionary magnate, against nearly 20 other challengers -- including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Political analysts are predicting a second round vote between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko on June 15.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and ITAR-TASS