After weeks of diplomatic deadlock it seems some progress is being made in Crimea, as Russia has reportedly pulled back some troops from the Ukrainian border. But any friendly overtures were negated by Russia's economic plans for Crimea, a good sign they're not planning on giving it back to Ukraine any time soon.
The news of the withdrawal came from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who told a news conference that he hopes "we have overcome the worst escalation," adding:
Only today there was news that the massive build-up of Russian forces on the east Ukraine border had been slightly reduced. That seems to be a small signal that the situation is becoming less tense.
Steinmeier delivered the information after meeting with the French and Polish foreign ministers. The news was echoed by Ukrainian Major-General Oleksandr Rozmaznin, who told Reuters that he wasn't sure how many soldiers had left the border:
The number has definitely dropped and it (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.
But while Steinmeier took a relatively optimistic perspective, saying the movement was a "small signal" of easing tensions, Rozmaznin said the decrease in soldiers could just be due to a scheduled rotation of conscripted soldiers. And Ukraine's foreign ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis took an even more critical view of the movement, saying:
We have information that the Russian Federation is carrying out unfathomable maneuvers on the borders with Ukraine -- in some border places they are taking away troops, in others they are coming closer. Such action can not fail to cause concern especially since we today do not have a clear explanation from the Russian Federation about the aims of these movements.
According to the defense ministry, one battalion — which numbers anywhere between 300 and 1,200 men — was pulled back from the border. An estimated 40,000 Russian troops stand at the border, an unnerving sign that Russia insists is regular military exercises, and not preparation for a larger invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is taking the decidedly unfriendly step of holding an official meeting in Crimea, a not-so-subtle way of showing that Russia is taking full advantage of the newly-annexed region. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin went so far as to say on Twitter, "Crimea is ours. Basta!" So there's no ambiguity there. And Reuters reports that Medvedev was all business when he got to Crimea:
"Our aim is to make the peninsula as attractive as possible to investors, so that it can generate sufficient income for its own development. There are opportunities for this - we have taken everything into consideration," he said, sitting at a large desk with Russian flags behind him. "And so we have decided to create a special economic zone here. This will allow for the use of special tax and customs regimes in Crimea, and also minimize administrative procedures," he told the meeting, broadcast live on Russian state television.
Ukraine, naturally, was not pleased about this development, and told the Kremlin as much with a strongly-worded note: "The visit of an official person to the territory of another state without preliminary agreement is a crude violation of the rules of the international community."
Medvedev's visit follows yesterday's fruitless talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.