Laura Mills ?and Vladimir Isachenkov
SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA: Russia said Monday it was pulling a battalion of several hundred troops away from the Ukrainian border but kept tens of thousands in place, prompting a worried response from the Kiev government about what the U.S. warned was still a “tremendous buildup.”
Russia moved quickly to strengthen its economic hold on Crimea, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arriving in the newly annexed peninsula with promises of funds for improved power supplies, waterlines, education and pensions for the elderly.
Russia’s takeover of the strategic Black Sea region, its troop buildup near Ukraine’s border 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 its neighbor.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call Monday that some troops were being withdrawn from the Ukraine border, Merkel’s office said. The withdrawal involved a battalion of about 500 troops, Russian news reports said.
The U.S. reacted cautiously to the Russian troop movement, with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel saying that “tens of thousands” of Russian forces still remained along the Ukrainian border, a situation he called “a tremendous buildup.”
The new government in Ukraine said the action only increased its uneasiness about Russia’s intentions.
“We have information that Russia is carrying out incomprehensible maneuvers on the border with Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevgen Perebyinis said. “Troops in some places are moving backward, some of them are moving forward. Which is why, obviously, we are worried by these movements of armed forces. We have no clear explanation from the Russian side about the aim of these movements.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also discussed Ukraine by phone Monday, a day after holding talks in Paris, the Russian foreign ministry said.
In Kiev, meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president flatly rejected escalating 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.