Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Russia reduces troop levels along Ukraine’s eastern border

President Putin says he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops — a sign of possible easing of tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone on Monday that he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from his country's border with eastern Ukraine — a possible sign that the threat of a military incursion has, for now, faded.

Russia had amassed nearly 40,000 troops along the border with Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, U.S. and EU officials estimated, spurring fears that an invasion was imminent after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula under the auspices of defending ethnic Russians who largely oppose the country’s new, West-leaning leaders in Kiev. Russia has insisted that the buildup of forces along its border with Ukraine is part of regularly scheduled military exercises.

But on Monday, Ukrainian defense officials observed a decline in troop levels and a Russian defense ministry spokesman told Russian state news agencies that at least one battalion was being called back.

"The Russian president informed the chancellor about the partial withdrawal of Russian troops he ordered from the eastern border of Ukraine," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

"On top of that the two discussed further possible steps to stabilize the situation in Ukraine and Transnistria," he said, referring to the pro-Russian breakaway region in Moldova where Russia has deployed a peacekeeping force.

Ukrainian defense officials were cautiously optimistic about the prospect for de-escalation after observing the reduced troop levels on Monday, but said there was no evidence Russia was ready to back down entirely.

Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Oleksandr Rozmaznin told journalists the drop in numbers might reflect a scheduled rotation of conscripts rather than a withdrawal.

"The number has definitely dropped and [the situation] has calmed down. We won't rejoice and shout 'Hurray'. It doesn't matter how many of them there are, we just need to make sure our defenses are strong," he said.

Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy, Ukraine's defense ministry spokesman, said he could not confirm how many soldiers the drawdown involved or the number of troops still stationed at Russia's border with its former Soviet satellite. But Dmytro Tymchuk, analyst with Kiev's Centre for Military and Political Studies, said his sources had told him Russia had only 10,000 soldiers remaining near the border by Monday morning.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sunday for talks that reached no breakthrough on the crisis but ended with an agreement for the sides to resume negotiations again soon.

During that meeting, Lavrov said he pressed Russia's call for a federal Ukraine consisting of regions free to choose their own economic model, language and religion.

Kerry said he agreed to work with the Ukraine government on those issues, but called for the removal of "illegal and illegitimate" Russian troops in Crimea, which he said were responsible for creating a climate of intimidation in mainland Ukraine.

In the Monday phone call with Merkel, Putin reiterated his call for a “comprehensive solution” that would also lift a “blockade” on Transnistria, confirming the prevailing assumption that Putin has sought to leverage the threat of invasion in order to achieve other geopolitical aims.

Meanwhile in Crimea, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on Monday that Moscow will declare Crimea as a special economic zone with tax breaks to attract investors, Reuters reported. Medvedev made the announcement during a visit to the former Ukrainian region, flaunting his country's grip on the Black Sea peninsula after Putin signed legislation that formally absorbed it into Russia on March 21.

The annexation has been widely decried as a violation of international law, with the U.N. General Assembly passing a non-binding resolution last week that declared Crimea’s Russian-backed referendum invalid.

But Crimean officials have said that the local economy is facing a shortfall and needs economic stimulus from Russia. By splitting from Ukraine, Crimea will not be privy to the $18 billion International Monetary Fund loan that Kiev accepted on Thursday.

Medvedev on Monday vowed to raise the level of salaries for municipal employees and pensions to average Russian levels and to modernize the region's hospitals, which he said were outdated.

"As a result of joining Russia, not one resident of Crimea, not one resident of Sevastopol should lose anything. They can only gain," Medvedev promised during the special cabinet meeting.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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