Russia is withdrawing a battalion of several hundred troops near the border with Ukraine, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said Monday, easing fears that it could take over more Ukrainian territory.
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.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev led a delegation of cabinet ministers and deputies to key cities on the peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by Russian forces in early March and annexed just weeks later.
In Kyiv, authorities denounced the visit, calling it a "crude violation" of diplomatic protocol. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also sent an official note protesting the prime minister\’s visit to what it called "the territory of another state."
Medvedev toured a hospital in Crimea\’s largest city, Simferopol, where Western reporters say he was greeted by cheering doctors and nurses. He also signed autographs at a local school. In a meeting with Simferopol officials, he outlined moves to revive the peninsula\’s struggling economy, including wage increases for state workers and infrastructure and transportation investments.
Tensions between Russia and the West rose after the overthrow of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, following months of street protests.
Russia\’s subsequent decision to annex Crimea triggered a crisis in relations.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on members of President Vladimir Putin\’s inner circle and other officials. Russia has retaliated with its own sanctions on US lawmakers.
The U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to news of the troop withdrawal. A statement said reports of the drawdown, if accurate, "would be a welcome preliminary step." It also urged Moscow to accelerate the withdrawal process.
Russia has sought to justify its seizure of Crimea, insisting it has the right to protect the area\’s largely Russian-speaking population from what it says are widespread minority rights violations by ethnic Ukrainians. However, international observers, including United Nations experts, say there is little evidence to support those allegations.
Ukraine\’s immediate neighbors — former Soviet republics that gained independence with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union — also have condemned the Crimean annexation as well as the mounting pressure on Kyiv from the Russian troop presence on its borders.
Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine for Russia on 16 March, in a referendum condemned as illegal by the UN General Assembly.
Source – Agencies