Putin pulls battalion from border
Russia pulled back a battalion from along the Ukrainian border today after sending its prime minister to shower promises on Crimea, pledging quick funds to improve power supplies, water lines and education on its newly annexed peninsula.
The German government said Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked on the phone today and Mr Putin told her that he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine's eastern border.
One battalion - about 500 troops - that had been sent to the Rostov region next to Ukraine was being withdrawn to its permanent base in the central Samara region, Russian news agencies quoted the Defence Ministry as saying.
Alexander Rozmaznin, deputy chief of the Ukrainian armed forces command centre, confirmed a drop in Russian troop numbers along the border.
Russia's takeover of Crimea and its attempts to compel constitutional changes in Ukraine have markedly raised tensions with the West and prompted fears that Moscow intends to invade other areas of Ukraine. The concerns were stoked by the large numbers of troops Russia had along the Ukrainian border for what Moscow said were military exercises.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry also discussed Ukraine by telephone, a day after holding talks in Paris, the ministry said.
In Crimea, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who led a delegation of Cabinet ministers on a surprise visit, pledged that Russia will quickly boost salaries and pensions there and pour in resources to improve education, health care and local infrastructure.
But making no mistake about Russia's view of the peninsula, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted a photo of himself upon arrival with the words "Crimea is ours, and that's that."
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a hastily called referendum held just two weeks after Russian forces had taken control of the Black Sea region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote.
To keep its influence over eastern and southern Ukraine, which are heavily populated by ethnic Russians, Russia has pushed for Ukraine to become a federation where regions would have broad powers.
Mr Medvedev said Russia will create a special economic zone in Crimea - a peninsula of two million people - that will create incentives for business with lower taxes and simpler rules. Russia will also seek to develop the region as a top tourist destination and will try to ensure that plane tickets to Crimea are cheap enough to encourage more Russians to visit.
"We must create a new investment history for Crimea, which will be more successful than what it has been," Mr Medvedev said.
He particularly emphasised the need to ensure a stable power supply for the peninsula. Crimea currently gets about 80% of its electricity and a similar share of its water from Ukraine, and power cuts last week raised fears that the Ukrainian government could use energy as a weapon to bargain with Russia.
Mr Medvedev said Russia already has made sure that Crimea has enough back-up power capacity to ensure an uninterrupted electricity supply. He added that Russia will work on long-term solutions to Crimea's energy problem that could involve linking the region to Russia's power grid or developing local power generation.
He said efforts will also be made to quickly repair the water infrastructure to reduce loss of water. In the future, Crimea could get water from Russia or create its own water reservoirs.
Russia's defence minister also announced that all Crimean men of conscription age will get a deferral from the draft for one year.
The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's inner circle for the annexation of Crimea and warned that Russia will face even more painful sanctions if it tries to invade eastern Ukraine.
In Kiev, meanwhile, Ukraine's acting president flatly rejected Russian pressure to turn Ukraine into a loose federation.
"Russia's leadership should deal with problems in the Russian Federation, and not with Ukraine's problems," Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchinov said. "It is Ukrainians that should dictate the form of the new constitution and how the country is structured."