WASHINGTON DC —
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is in Crimea - the most senior Russian official to visit the region since Russia seized it from Ukraine earlier this month.
Medvedev says he is leading a delegation of Russian officials for a meeting on what he calls the "development" of the peninsula.
The prime minister says Russia will create a special economic zone in Crimea, offering incentives for business with lower taxes and simpler rules. Medvedev also promised to boost salaries and pensions in Crimea.
His meeting Monday comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded Russia pull back thousands of its troops massed along its border with Ukraine.
Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Sunday that the troops are creating a "climate of fear" in Ukraine and that their presence does nothing for diplomacy.
Kerry said he and Lavrov agree that Ukrainians have the right to determine their own future.
The United States estimates Russia has 40,000 troops along the border, while Kyiv says the number is closer to 100,000.
Russia has said it has the right to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, and used that as justification for taking over Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed how Moscow and the West can help “restore stability” in Ukraine during a telephone call on Monday, the Kremlin said.
Putin told Merkel that Ukraine must enact constitutional reforms to ensure that the interests of all its regions are respected, and called for measures to end what he called a “blockade” of Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region, his office said.
Putin and Merkel discussed “opportunities for international support for the restoration of stability” in Ukraine, the Kremlin statement said. It gave no details, but Russia has indicated it wants Western states to press the Kyiv government to grant broad autonomy to Ukraine's regions.
The U.S. has insisted that any matters pertaining to Ukraine’s governance are for Kyiv to determine.
Western officials have expressed concern that Putin may have set his sights on pro-Russian Transdniestria, on Ukraine's western border, following the annexation of Crimea.
Putin's comments appeared aimed at turning the tables, blaming others for tension over Transdniestria and saying it could not be ignored.
“The Russian leader spoke of the need to take effective measures aimed at removing the de facto external blockade of this region and at searching for a fair and comprehensive solution to the Transdniestria issue,” the Kremlin statement said.
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.
Signs of pull-back
Meanwhile, Russia is withdrawing a motorized infantry battalion from a region near Ukraine's eastern border, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying by state news agencies on Monday.
The United States says progress on resolving the East-West stand-off over Ukraine depends on Russia pulling back troops massed on the border. It was not clear whether other troops would pull back or had already withdrawn.
The Defense Ministry said it was pulling forces out of the Rostov region near Russia's border with Ukraine after month-long military exercises.
“The battalion ... has completed its field exercises at the Kadamovsky training grounds in the Rostov region and is beginning its march to its permanent base in the Samara region,” the ministry was quoted as saying.
A battalion numbers between 300 and 1,200 troops.
Russia says the build-up near the border is part of military exercises and there are no plans to move forces across the border into Ukraine, but the United States and NATO have voiced alarm over Moscow's intentions following its annexation of Crimea.
Some reporting by Reuters