Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine on Monday reported a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from its border that may be linked to Washington’s 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 Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that ended with an agreement to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through talks.
Both Western powers and the new pro-European interim leaders in Kiev have been increasingly worried that the Kremlin intended to seize heavily Russified southeastern parts of Ukraine after annexing its Crimea peninsula in response to the fall in February of the ex-Soviet state’s Moscow-backed president.
But any sign of an easing in Russia’s position was countered by an unannounced visit to Crimea by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — the most senior Moscow official to visit the Black Sea peninsula since its March 16 vote to join Kremlin.
The Ukrainian defense ministry said the start of the troop drawdown appeared to coincide in timing to a phone call that Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly placed to U.S. President Barack Obama about the crisis on Friday evening.
“In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradually withdrawing from the border,” the Ukrainian defence ministry’s general staff spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy told AFP in a telephone interview.
Dmytrashkivskiy said he could not confirm how many soldiers were involved or the number of troops still stationed in the border region. U.S. and EU officials had earlier estimated that Russia’s sudden military buildup had reached 30,000 to 40,000 troops.
Kiev’s Centre for Military and Political Studies analyst Dmytro Tymchuk said on Monday that his sources had told him that Russia had only 10,000 soldiers stationed near Ukraine by Monday morning.
“If earlier, we estimated the chances of a Russian invasion at 80 percent, then now we put it at 50 percent,” Tymchuk said in comments posted on his Facebook account.
A Ukrainian defence 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.
“This could be linked to a regular rotation of soldiers,” said Dmytrashkivskiy. “Or it may be linked to the Russian-US negotiations.”
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.
Washington is not against the idea of constitutional changes but remains wary that the Kremlin wants to use decentralization as a tool for vetoing Kiev decisions in southeastern regions whose Russian speakers Putin has vowed to “protect.”
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.
“We will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table. This principle is clear. No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Kerry told reporters.
Ukraine’s new leaders have been willing to give more authority to local legislatures and allow the regions to elect their own governors — administrators who are appointed by Kiev today.
But they also refuse to give regions the power to set up their own economic and social policies that could theoretically 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.
“There are no grounds for Ukraine’s federalization,” the acting president said.
Kerry stressed on Sunday that Washington still viewed Crimea’s annexation as “illegal and illegitimate.”
But analysts note that the West appears to have accepted Ukraine’s loss of the strategic region as a fait accompli and is now more concerned about the Kremlin’s perceived attempts to splinter the rest of the nation of 46 million.
Medvedev reasserted Russia’s claim over Crimea on Monday by leading a major delegation of cabinet ministers to its main city of Simferopol and then planning a side trip to Sevastopol — an historic port that has housed tsarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century.
He promised to modernize Crimea’s crumbling infrastructure by turning the region into a “special economic zone” of Russia that attracted investments through lower tax rates.
Medvedev said he had come to “assess the situation and the scale of tasks ahead of us, and of course just to talk to the residents of the peninsula and support them.”
The close Putin ally had earlier visited a children’s hospital in Simferopol and promised the doctors it would be modernised with new ambulances.
AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte