Putin says he’s pulling some troops back from Ukrainian border
NEW: German Chancellor Merkel and Russian President Putin discuss Ukraine via phone,
Medvedev visits Crimea in the highest-level visit from Moscow since Russia annexed the region,
Russian PM: Crimeans “need to understand they’re citizens of a powerful country”,
Ukrainian officials say Russia is repositioning some troops massed on its border.
Potentially easing a diplomatic standoff with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Germany’s chancellor Monday that he’d ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from his country’s border area with Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said.
Putin made the comment to Merkel in a phone call about Ukraine, her office said. The Kremlin made no mention of a withdrawal in its own description of the call, but said the two leaders discussed Ukraine, including “possibilities for international assistance to restore stability.”
Further details about Putin’s reported order weren’t immediately available. But a withdrawal may ease tensions simmering since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea this month — a move that has led to the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Earlier Monday, Russian media reported that one Russian infantry battalion was being moved from the border area to its base deeper into Russia.
Ukrainian and Western officials for weeks have voiced alarm about Russia’s reported military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border, which has raised fears that Russian troops would enter the Ukrainian mainland. Russia may have 40,000 troops near its border with eastern Ukraine and another 25,000 inland who are on alert and prepared to go in, two U.S. officials have told CNN.
Moscow has said it had no intention of ordering its armed forces to cross over into its neighbor, insisting its troops have been conducting exercises. But Putin has said Russia reserves the right to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine from what he calls threats from Ukrainian nationals — a reasoning he also used in this month’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Putin’s conversation with Merkel came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks in Paris about ways to defuse the crisis over Ukraine.
Kerry told Lavrov that progress depended on a Russian troop pullback from Ukraine’s borders, but no breakthrough was announced.
The West imposed sanctions against some Russian officials because of the Crimea crisis and threatened more if tensions weren’t eased.
Troops along the border
Amid reports that Russia may have started withdrawing from the border, government sources in Kiev told CNN that Russian troops were not backing away but were simply repositioning their forces farther north.
One Ukrainian official said intelligence indicated that Russian troops are “conducting unclear maneuvers at the Ukrainian border.”
Meanwhile, Russian state news agency ITAR-Tass reported Monday that one Russian infantry battalion was being withdrawn from a region bordering Ukraine. That battalion, having finished military exercises, is returning to its base in Russia’s Samara region, hundreds of miles away from the border, the outlet reported, citing Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Details about how many troops are in that battalion weren’t immediately available.
During a daily briefing Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebyinis said Russia had not told Kiev about the intentions of any military forces in the area.
“At some border districts the troops are withdrawn, in others they approach the border,” he said. “We are concerned about this movement of the army.”
Russian PM arrives in Crimea
Also Monday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Crimea — the highest-level visit from Moscow since Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula this month.
The Premier, accompanied by a Russian government delegation, tweeted that he was in the region’s capital, Simferopol, for talks on social and economic development.
“As a result of entering Russia, not a single citizen of Crimea should lose anything — they need only to benefit from it,” Medvedev said in a news conference carried by Russian state television. “Citizens need to understand that they’re citizens of a powerful country.”
The Premier met with local Crimean officials, including its Prime Minister, the speaker of the regional parliament and mayor of Sevastopol, among others.
He said Crimean state salaries and pensions should be raised to Russian levels, as should the pay for military personnel, while compulsory social insurance would be introduced to the region next year.
Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum dismissed as a sham by Western governments, which say it violated Ukraine’s constitution and was held only after pro-Russian forces had seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
In tense, defiant Ukraine border region, prayers for peace
Unveiling a list of measures for the region, Medvedev also said Moscow would make Crimea a special economic zone.
Tax breaks may also be offered to companies, he added, calling for mortgage programs to be introduced to the region and for a review of water supply projects.
Crimea was integrated into Ukraine’s mainland economy and infrastructure — 90% of its water, 80% of its electricity and roughly 65% of its gas have come from the rest of the country.
The absorption of Crimea and its 2 million residents creates an added financial burden on Russia, which is struggling with slow growth and facing Western sanctions over its move.
“The water system is old. … We’ll need to make sure that citizens of Crimea are provided with the fresh water,” Medvedev said. “There are a few projects. We’ll need to consider them and choose the most suitable.”
With agriculture one of the region’s main economic gainers, Medvedev said Crimea would be included in a Russian support program for the sector and would soon receive around 80 harvesters. Local wines, which he said were popular across Russia, would also receive special attention.
After visiting a local school and children’s hospital in the morning, Medvedev added that Crimea needed modern medical equipment and reforms in education. He offered to establish a new federal university.