Ukraine yesterday reported a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from its border that may be linked to the US’ latest push for a diplomatic solution to the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
The announcement came in the wake of a four-hour meeting in Paris on Sunday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that ended with an agreement to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through talks.
However, any sign of an easing in Russia’s position was countered by an unannounced visit to Crimea by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — the most senior Moscow official to visit the Black Sea peninsula since its March 16 vote to join the Kremlin.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said the start of the troop drawdown appeared to coincide in timing with a telephone call that Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly placed to US President Barack Obama about the crisis on Friday evening.
Ukrainian defense ministry’s general staff spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy said in a telephone interview that he could not confirm how many soldiers were involved or the number of troops still stationed in the border region.
US and EU officials had earlier estimated that Russia’s sudden military buildup had reached 30,000 to 40,000 troops.
A Ukrainian ministry official said that Kiev had not been formally notified of the drawdown by Moscow and therefore could not tell why the soldiers were being moved.
Kerry’s hastily arranged meeting with Lavrov concluded without any evident shift in either sides’ stance.
Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s demand that Ukraine be turned into a federation in which the regions enjoyed broader autonomy from Kiev and had the right to declare Russian as a second official language.
Kerry insisted after the talks that he did not discuss the federation idea with Lavrov in detail because Ukrainian officials had not been invited to Paris.
“Lavrov, Putin and Medvedev can suggest as many ideas as they want for resolving Russia’s problems — but not for resolving our problems,” Ukrainian Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told reporters yesterday. “There are no grounds for Ukraine’s federaliation.”
Meanwhile, Medvedev led a major delegation of Cabinet ministers to Crimea’s main city of Simferopol. He promised to modernize Crimea’s crumbling infrastructure by turning the region into a “special economic zone” of Russia that attracts investments through lower tax rates.