Russia is slowly pulling back troops stationed near its eastern border with Ukraine, a Kiev official said on Monday.
"In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradually withdrawing from the border," said the spokesman for the Ukrainian defence ministry's general staff, Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy.
The announcement came after a four-hour meeting in Paris on Sunday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that ended with an exchange of political proposals and an agreement to talk again soon.
Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing up to 40,000 troops near the border after Moscow annexed the southern Crimea region last month in response to the fall of Ukraine's Kremlin-backed president.
Dmytro Tymchuk, an analyst at Kiev's Centre for Military and Political Studies, said his sources believed Russia had only 10,000 soldiers remaining there as of Monday morning.
Both Washington and Kiev are worried that Moscow wants to seize other south-eastern parts of Ukraine that have large populations of ethnic Russians.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally informed her of the troop pullback in a phone call on Monday, while her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the move "a small sign that the situation is becoming less tense".
But the apparent easing of Moscow's position was offset by an unannounced visit to Crimea by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – the most senior Russian official to visit the Black Sea peninsula since it last month voted to come under Kremlin rule.
He promised to modernise the region's crumbling infrastructure, saying it would be turned into a "special economic zone" of Russia that would attract investment through lower tax rates.
NATO could break promise to Russia
On Tuesday, Kerry will join other NATO foreign ministers in Brussels where the alliance will confirm the suspension of cooperation with Moscow. The West views the annexation of Crimea as "illegal and illegitimate".
NATO has not ruled out the possibility of placing permanent military bases in the Baltic countries. This would break a promise made to Russia in the 1990s that NATO would keep permanent troops out of new member countries that border Russia.
"It is clear that Russia has not played by the rules, has not been consistent with our partnership... so we can review our own rules," Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to NATO, said on Monday.
A $1-billion-plus US aid package to Ukraine, which also imposes sanctions on Russia, is expected to clear Congress on Tuesday and be signed off by US President Barack Obama.
Russia pushes for “federated’ Ukraine
At the meeting with Kerry and Lavrov in Paris, Lavrov repeated Moscow's demand that Ukraine be turned into a federation with autonomous regions that have the right to declare Russian a second official language.
Washington fears the Kremlin would use this to weaken Kiev's control on regions with large numbers of Russian speakers, who Putin has vowed to "protect".
Ukraine's new leaders have been willing to give more authority to local legislatures and allow the regions to elect their own governors, who are currently appointed by Kiev.
But they refuse to grant regions the right to set up their own economic and social policies, which might boost their reliance on Russia.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-03-31