Highest-level Moscow visit since annexation, Russian PM arrives in Crimea

Early morning departure (March 19) at Simferopol airport where the Russian flag is already firmly in place on the tarmac. - CNN's Dominique Van Heerden. Tuesday (March 18) saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce the annexation of Crimea, two days after voters in that semiautonomous territory approved a hastily called referendum on separating from Ukraine.

Early morning departure (March 19) at Simferopol airport where the Russian flag is already firmly in place on the tarmac. - CNN's Dominique Van Heerden. Tuesday (March 18) saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce the annexation of Crimea, two days after voters in that semiautonomous territory approved a hastily called referendum on separating from Ukraine.

(CNN) — Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Crimea on Monday, the highest-level visit from Moscow since Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula this month.

The premier, accompanied by a Russian government delegation, tweeted that he was in the region’s capital, Simferopol, for talks on social and economic development.

News of the visit came as a Ukraine Security Service source in Kiev told CNN that Russian troops were repositioning some forces massed along Ukraine’s eastern border farther north, and as Russian media reported that one Russian infantry battalion was being moved from the border area to its base deeper into Russia. Moscow has said its troops are carrying out snap military exercises in the region.

“As a result of entering Russia, not a single citizen of Crimea should lose anything — they need only to benefit from it,” Medvedev said in a news conference carried by Russian state television. “Citizens need to understand that they’re citizens of a powerful country.”

The premier met with local Crimean officials, including its prime minister, the speaker of the regional parliament and mayor of Sevastopol, among others.

He said Crimean state salaries and pensions should be raised to Russian levels, as should the pay for military personnel, while compulsory social insurance would be introduced to the region next year.

Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum dismissed as a sham by Western governments, which say it violated Ukraine’s constitution and was held only after pro-Russian forces had seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.

Economic measures

Unveiling a list of measures for the region, Medvedev also said Moscow would make Crimea a special economic zone.

Tax breaks may also be offered to companies, he added, calling for mortgage programs to be introduced to the region and for a review of water supply projects.

Crimea was integrated into Ukraine’s mainland economy and infrastructure — 90% of its water, 80% of its electricity and roughly 65% of its gas have come from the rest of the country.

The absorption of Crimea and its 2 million residents creates an added financial burden on Russia, which is struggling with slow growth and facing Western sanctions over its move.

“The water system is old. … We’ll need to make sure that citizens of Crimea are provided with the fresh water,” Medvedev said. “There are a few projects. We’ll need to consider them and choose the most suitable.”

With agriculture one of the region’s main economic gainers, Medvedev said Crimea would be included in a Russian support program for the sector and would soon receive around 80 harvesters. Local wines, which he said were popular across Russia, would also receive special attention.

After visiting a local school and children’s hospital in the morning, Medvedev added that Crimea needed modern medical equipment and reforms in education. He offered to establish a new federal university.

No breakthrough in talks

His visit, likely to irk Kiev and Western governments, comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks on Sunday about ways to defuse the crisis over Ukraine — the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War. But no breakthrough was announced.

Kerry told Lavrov that progress depended on a Russian troop pullback from Ukraine’s borders.

“Is it smart at this moment in time to have that number of troops amassed on a border when you are sending a message that you want to de-escalate and move in the other direction?” Kerry said.

Kerry said Russia and the United States agreed to work with Ukraine on several issues: the rights of national minorities; language rights; the demobilization and disarmament of provocateurs; a constitutional reform process; and free and fair elections monitored by the international community.

“We expressed differing views about the cause of this crisis, but nevertheless we agreed on the need to search for points of common ground to find a diplomatic settlement,” Lavrov later told reporters.

Lavrov met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday.

Troops along border

Kiev and Western officials have voiced alarm about Russia’s reported military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border, which has raised fears of further incursions.

Russia may have 40,000 troops near its border with eastern Ukraine and another 25,000 inland who are on alert and prepared to go in, two U.S. officials have told CNN. The officials said that this estimate was largely based on satellite imagery and that a firm number is difficult to assess.

Moscow has said it had no intention of ordering its armed forces to cross over into its neighbor, insisting its troops are conducting exercises.

Amid reports that Russia may have started withdrawing from the border, government sources in Kiev told CNN that Russian troops were not backing away but were simply repositioning their forces farther north.

One Ukrainian official said intelligence indicated Russian troops are “conducting unclear maneuvers at the Ukrainian border.”

Meanwhile, Russian state news agency ITAR-Tass reported Monday that one Russian infantry battalion was being withdrawn from a region bordering Ukraine. That battalion, having finished military exercises, is returning to its base in Russia’s Samara region, hundreds of miles away from the border, the outlet reported, citing Russia’s Defense Ministry.

Details about how many troops are in that battalion weren’t immediately available.

During a daily briefing Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebyinis said Russia had not told Kiev about the intentions of any military forces in the area.

“At some border districts the troops are withdrawn, in others they approach the border,” he said. “We are concerned about this movement of the army.”

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Alla Eshchenko

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Alexander Felton and Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire
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