Ukraine’s Vitali Klitschko pulls out of presidential race

Vitali Klitschko

Boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko on Saturday pulled out of the race for Ukraine’s president, throwing his weight instead behind a billionaire businessman.

His announcement came as Russia reiterated it had no intention of sending troops into Ukraine — responding to Western warnings over a military buildup on the border following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Klitschko, one of the most familiar faces of the opposition during the anti-government protests that ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych last month, also told members of his UDAR party that Ukraine should aim to join the European Union fully.

“We need to have a joint democratic nominee. It has to be a candidate with the highest chances of winning. Today, I believe such a candidate is Petro Poroshenko,” he told a party convention in Kiev, referring to the billionaire businessman, also a former foreign minister. “Our goal is full membership of Ukraine in the EU.”

Klitschko said that instead he would run for mayor of Kiev. “All reforms start in Kiev,” he said.

Klitschko’s withdrawal from the presidential race would set up a battle between confectionary businessman Poroshenko and Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, in the May 25 elections. After more than two years in prison, Tymoshenko was released in February following Yanukovych’s ouster, her archrival.

Concerns over Russian forces

Moscow repeated Saturday it had no intention of ordering its armed forces to cross over into its neighbor.

“We have absolutely no intentions of crossing Ukrainian borders,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian state television. “This is not in our interests.”

After the interview was broadcast, it emerged that Lavrov had spoken by phone to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The men will meet Sunday in Paris to discuss the situation in Ukraine, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The development comes after Friday’s call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Last week, Moscow’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said nobody had anything to fear from Russia and that the country does not have any “expansionist views.”

Kiev and Western officials have voiced alarm about Russia’s reported military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border — following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea this month — which has raised fears of further incursions.

Russia may have 40,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, two U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday. The officials said that this estimate was largely based on satellite imagery and that a firm number is difficult to assess.

However, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Council of National Security and Defense, Yarema Dukh, told CNN his government estimates 88,000 Russian troops are at the Ukrainian border. U.S. officials said they believe the higher estimates may reflect Russian troops on alert farther to the east.

Russia has said its troops are carrying out snap military exercises in the region.

Putin-Obama phone call

Putin phoned Obama on Friday to discuss the tenuous situation in Ukraine — the latest exchange between two leaders who have been at loggerheads over the crisis and what should happen next.

According to the White House, Putin called to talk about an American proposal “for a diplomatic resolution,” and the two presidents agreed their respective top diplomats “would meet to discuss next steps.”

The back-and-forth also gave Obama the opportunity to express, as he’s done repeatedly in recent weeks, his opposition to what he described as Russia’s taking over of Crimea, which just a few weeks ago was part of Ukraine.

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Victoria Butenko

Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev. CNN’s Marie-Louise Gumuchian reported and wrote from London. CNN’s Alex Felton and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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