KIEV (AFP) — Ukraine on Monday reported a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from its eastern border, amid growing signs that the Kremlin is ready to defuse the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
The announcement came after a four-hour meeting in Paris between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that ended with an exchange of political proposals and an agreement to talk again soon.
Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing thousands of troops near the border after Moscow annexed the southern Crimea region last month in response to the fall of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president.
Both Washington and Kiev have been increasingly worried that Moscow intends to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine with large populations of ethnic Russians following the Crimea takeover.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally informed her of the troop pullback in a phone call on Monday, while her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the move “a small sign that the situation is becoming less tense”.
The United States said it would welcome any Russian move to pull its forces back, but did not confirm reports that Moscow had begun to do so.
The apparent easing of Moscow’s position was offset by an unannounced visit to Crimea by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — the most senior Russian official to visit the Black Sea peninsula since it voted on March 16 to come under Kremlin rule.
Ukraine’s defense ministry said the start of the Russian drawdown appeared to coincide with a phone call that Putin had unexpectedly placed to US President Barack Obama on Friday evening.
“In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradually withdrawing from the border,” the ministry’s general staff spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy told AFP in a telephone interview.
He could not confirm how many soldiers were involved. US and EU officials had earlier estimated that Russia’s sudden military build-up had reached 30,000 to 40,000 troops.
Kiev’s Centre for Military and Political Studies analyst Dmytro Tymchuk said his sources were reporting only 10,000 Russian soldiers on the border by Monday morning.
Russia’s defense ministry confirmed on Monday it had relocated one battalion — usually comprised of about 500 soldiers — that had been stationed near Ukraine back to its permanent base, but reported no other movement of troops.
Analysts say the focus now appears to be on preventing further Russian expansion into Ukraine and other neighboring countries, though US Secretary of State John Kerry has stressed that Washington still views the annexation of Crimea as “illegal and illegitimate”.
A $1-billion-plus US aid package to Ukraine which also imposes sanctions on Russia is expected to clear Congress on Tuesday and be signed off by Obama, ending a weeks-long impasse.
But there is already concern that the delayed legislation might be too little too late to have a substantial impact on resolving the most serious East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
Kerry will join other NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, where the alliance will confirm the suspension of cooperation with Moscow, as agreed earlier in the month.
NATO has not ruled out the possibility of placing permanent military bases in the Baltic countries — breaking a promise made to Russia in the 1990s that it would keep permanent troops out of new member countries that border Russia.
“It is clear that Russia has not played by the rules, has not been consistent with our partnership… so we can review our own rules,” Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to NATO, said on Monday.
In Crimea, Medvedev led a delegation of cabinet ministers to the main city Simferopol and the historic port of Sevastopol.
The close Putin ally promised to modernize Crimea’s crumbling infrastructure by turning the region into a “special economic zone” of Russia that would attract investment through lower tax rates.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry denounced Medvedev’s visit as a “grave violation” of international law.
The hastily arranged meeting in Paris between Kerry and Lavrov late Sunday concluded without any evident change in Russia’s stance.
Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s demand that Ukraine be turned into a federation in which the regions enjoy broader autonomy from Kiev and have the right to declare Russian as a second official language — a line which Putin pressed during his call to Merkel.
Washington remains wary that the Kremlin will use decentralization in Ukraine to weaken Kiev’s control on regions with large numbers of Russian speakers who Putin has vowed to “protect”.
Kerry insisted that Ukrainian officials must be at the table for any such discussions.
Ukraine’s new leaders have been willing to give more authority to local legislatures and allow the regions to elect their own governors, who are currently appointed by Kiev.
But they refuse to grant regions the right to set up their own economic and social policies that might boost their reliance on Russia.
“Lavrov, Putin and Medvedev can suggest as many ideas as they want for resolving Russia’s problems — but not for resolving our problems,” Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told reporters on Monday.