* Unclear whether this withdrawal or conscript rotation
* U.S. has said 40,000 troops are on border with Ukraine
* Russia says they are there for military exercises
* Kerry has called for Russian troop withdrawal
(Adds background, quotes, Foreign Ministry comment)
KIEV, March 31 The number of Russian troops
deployed on the border with Ukraine is decreasing, a Ukrainian
Defence Ministry official said on Monday, but he cautioned that
this might not represent a pull-back of forces.
Major-General Oleksandr Rozmaznin told journalists the drop
in numbers might reflect a scheduled rotation of conscripts
rather than a withdrawal, and he would not confirm the numbers
"The number of soldiers has fallen, but the exact figure is
pretty approximate. I can not confirm the number," said
Rozmaznin when asked if as many as 10,000 soldiers might have
left the border area.
"The number has definitely dropped and it (the situation)
has calmed down. We won't rejoice and shout 'Hurray'. It doesn't
matter how many of them there are, we just need to make sure our
defences are strong," he said.
Conscripts made up a large part of the Russian army and "a
certain number of conscripts could be stood down and swapped for
others", Rozmaznin said.
The Russian military build-up on Ukraine's eastern and
southern borders, as Russian forces moved into Crimea and
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow reserved the
right to defend Russian-speakers in Ukraine, caused alarm in
Kiev at the prospect of a broader military invasion.
Russia says the build-up represents military exercises and
Russian officials say there are no plans for moving forces
across the border into Ukraine's eastern and southern areas
where the heaviest concentration of Russian-speakers live.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry was cautious at reports of a
"We have information that the Russian Federation is carrying
out unfathomable manoeuvres on the borders with Ukraine - in
some border places they are taking away troops, in others they
are coming closer," ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis said.
"Such action can not fail to cause concern especially since
we today do not have a clear explanation from the Russian
Federation about the aims of these movements," Perebiynis told
U.S. officials last Friday said Russia's reinforcement of
troops near Ukraine had brought the total forces there to as
many as 40,000, though European sources have been estimating
lower numbers at around 30,000.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, after talks with
Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov on Sunday in Paris, that
progress on resolving the crisis over the Russian annexation of
Crimea depended on a Russian troop pull-back from Ukraine's
Although Moscow says the buildup is part of military
exercises, it has also been pressing diplomatically for
Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine to be given greater autonomy
and for the Russian language to be upgraded to the status of a
state language in Ukraine.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by
Alessandra Prentice and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Alison