NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said there has been no sign of a Russian troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border, contradicting an earlier Kremlin statement claiming that Russia was pulling its soldiers back.
Rasmussen told a news conference in Brussels on May 19 that the alliance has "unfortunately" not seen "any evidence at all" that the Russians have started pilling back troops from the Ukrainian border.
Russia's actions in Ukraine, he said, have created a "completely new security situation in Europe" and are of "grave concern" to NATO's eastern allies. But he added, "Rest assured we have all plans in place to ensure effective defense and protection against any threat."
He said Russia's "aggression" against Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea have posed a challenge to a fundamental democratic idea -- "the right of sovereign states to choose their own path."
Rasmussen said Europe is now facing a completely new security situation due to Moscow's behavior that is "less predictable and more dangerous."
Rasmussen called for increased defense spending, saying "our security is the foundation of our prosperity."
Rasmussen spoke shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered troops stationed near Ukraine's border
to return to their home bases.
The Kremlin said in a statement that troops involved in "planned spring" exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions have been ordered back to their barracks.
The Kremlin said that Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back the troops in these three regions.
Putin's order appeared to go further than a similar statement two weeks ago in which he said that Russian forces were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.
The Kremlin statement did not say how many troops would be pulled out of the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.
NATO estimates that Russia has some 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine.
At the same time, Russia urged Kyiv to end its operation in eastern Ukraine and withdraw its own troops from the region.
A Kremlin spokesman also said on May 19 that Putin will discuss Ukraine with UN chief Ban Ki-moon during a trip to China on May 20.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on on May 19 that Moscow's relations with the European Union and NATO require "serious rethinking" due to the Ukraine crisis.
Lavrov also called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to assist in the release of two Russian television journalists apparently detained in eastern Ukraine.
The two were reportedly detained by Ukrainian security forces near the flashpoint city of Kramatorsk.
He also said Slovakia's decision to allow for reverse gas flows to Ukraine does not violate its agreements with Gazprom and the Russian government. He made the comments in Moscow after talks with visiting Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.
Ukraine is facing a threat from Russia to cut off supplies because of a massive debt.