The German government said Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin talked on the phone and Mr Putin told her that he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s eastern border.
One battalion — about 500 troops — that had been sent to the Rostov region next to Ukraine was being withdrawn to its permanent base in the central Samara region, Russian news agencies quoted the Defence Ministry as saying.
Alexander Rozmaznin, deputy chief of the Ukrainian armed forces command centre, confirmed a drop in Russian troop numbers along the border.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea 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 Ukraine.
The concerns were stoked by the large numbers of troops Russia had along the Ukrainian border for what Moscow said were military exercises.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry also discussed Ukraine by telephone, a day after holding talks in Paris, the ministry said.
In Crimea, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who led a delegation of cabinet ministers on a surprise visit, pledged that Russia would quickly boost salaries and pensions there and pour in resources to improve education, healthcare and local infrastructure.
The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s inner circle for the annexation of Crimea and warned that Russia will face even more painful sanctions if it tries to invade eastern Ukraine.
In Kiev, meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president flatly rejected 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. “It is Ukrainians that should dictate the form of the new constitution and how the country is structured.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s moves against Ukraine were reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s aggression in 1938 that led to the annexation of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia, Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. But Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly distanced herself from the comments.
“We know all about that from history,” Schaeuble told a group of 50 students.
He was referring to the arguments that Putin has used to annex Crimea. “Those are the methods that Hitler used to take over the Sudetenland.”