Saturday, December 16, 2017

Russia pulls back a battalion from Ukraine border

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 United States warned was still a "tremendous buildup."

Russia moved quickly to strengthen its economic hold on Crimea, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arriving in the annexed peninsula with promises of funds for improved power supplies, water lines, 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President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call Monday that some troops were being withdrawn from the Ukraine border, Merkel's office said.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 United States 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.

Medvedev, who led a delegation of Cabinet ministers on a surprise visit to Crimea, pledged that Russia would quickly boost salaries and pensions 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 in March after a hastily called referendum just two weeks after Russian forces took control of the Black Sea region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote.

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