Russia on Monday withdrew some troops from its border with Ukraine, as it sent its prime minister to the newly annexed Crimean peninsula with promises of wide-ranging economic relief.
Details of the troop drawdown were not clear late Monday, but both Russian and Ukrainian officials acknowledged that some forces had been pulled back from the tense border area. Russian authorities referred to the withdrawal of a battalion -- a unit that generally consists of 500 to 700 troops. U.S. officials estimate Moscow has deployed 40,000 soldiers to the area.
The U.S. State Department has cautiously welcomed the announcement.
"If reports that Russia is removing some troops from the border region are accurate, it would be a welcome preliminary step. We would urge Russia to accelerate this process," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She added that the U.S. also continues to urge Russia to engage in a dialogue with the government in Kyiv to de-escalate the situation, while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, NATO sources are saying that they are aware of reports of small numbers of Russian troops relocating, but believe these reports are inconclusive at this time.
There are many reasons why military units move, including for exercise purposes, resupply, repositioning, or for troop rotation, the sources said.
◆ Medvedev Visits Crimea
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev flaunted Russia's grip on Crimea by flying to
the region and holding a government meeting there on Monday, angering Ukraine and defying Western demands to hand the peninsula back to Kyiv.
The Ukrainian government denounced the visit, a few hours after the latest round of crisis talks between Russia and the United States ended inconclusively, as a "crude violation" of the rules of diplomacy.
Medvedev said he was leading a delegation of Russian officials for a meeting on what he calls the "development" of the peninsula.
The prime minister said Russia will create a special economic zone in Crimea, offering incentives for business with lower taxes and simpler rules. Medvedev also promised to boost salaries and pensions in Crimea, as well as improve the peninsula's transportation system and infrastructure.
His trip on Monday came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded Russia pull back thousands of its troops massed along its border with Ukraine.
Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Sunday that the troops are creating a "climate of fear" in Ukraine and that their presence does nothing for diplomacy.
The United States estimates Russia has 40,000 troops along the border, while Kyiv says the number is closer to 100,000.
The White House said on Monday that, following Sunday's talks in Paris, Kerry and Lavrov had agreed to speak again about ways to resolve the crisis in Ukraine but that no date for such a conversation had been set.
◆ Merkel-Putin Call
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed how Moscow and the West can help "restore stability" in Ukraine during a telephone call on Monday, the Kremlin said.
Putin told Merkel that Ukraine must enact constitutional reforms to ensure that the interests of all its regions are respected, and called for measures to end what he called a "blockade" of Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region, his office said.
Putin and Merkel discussed "opportunities for international support for the restoration of stability" in Ukraine, the Kremlin statement said. It gave no details, but Russia has indicated it wants Western states to press the Kyiv government to grant broad autonomy to Ukraine's regions.
The U.S. has insisted that any matters pertaining to Ukraine's governance are for Kyiv to determine.
Western officials have expressed concern that Putin may have set his sights on pro-Russian Transdniestria, on Ukraine's western border, following the annexation of Crimea.
Putin's comments appeared aimed at turning the tables, blaming others for tension over Transdniestria and saying it could not be ignored.
"The Russian leader spoke of the need to take effective measures aimed at removing the de facto external blockade of this region and at searching for a fair and comprehensive solution to the Transdniestria issue," the Kremlin statement said.
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.
According to a Merkel spokesperson, Putin also said that he ordered a "partial withdrawal" of Russian troops from Ukraine's border.