Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev flaunted Russia’s grip on Crimea by flying to the region and holding a government meeting there yesterday, angering Ukraine and defying Western demands to hand the peninsula back to Kiev.

But in a gesture that could ease tension in the worst East-West stand-off since the Cold War, Russia pulled some troops back from near Ukraine’s eastern border.

President Vladimir Putin told Germany’s Angela Merkel that he had ordered a partial drawdown in the region, the German chancellor’s spokesman said. The Defence Ministry said a motorised infantry battalion, which numbers between 300 and 1,200 men, had been pulled back to its base.

However, Medvedev’s visit taunted Western leaders by underlining their inability to force Putin to relinquish Crimea, seized after the overthrow of Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and formally annexed on March 21.

Accompanying Medvedev, outspoken Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin – who has been targeted by Western sanctions – left no doubt about the symbolism of the trip, saying on Twitter: “Crimea is ours. Basta!”

Ukraine denounces Russian PM’s visit as crude violation

The Ukrainian government denounced the visit, a few hours after the latest round of crisis talks between Russia and the United States ended inconclusively, as a “crude violation” of the rules of diplomacy.

Putin and Merkel also discussed by phone ways of stabilising Ukraine and another former Soviet Republic, Moldova. A Kremlin statement quoted Putin as calling for a comprehensive solution that would end what he called a “blockade” of Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria. Soon after Medvedev landed with Cabinet members in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol, he held a government meeting on moves to revive the region’s struggling economy, including by creating a special economic zone to ease tax and customs duties.

“Our aim is to make the peninsula as attractive as possible to investors, so that it can generate sufficient income for its own development,” he said, in a meeting that included Crimean leaders and was broadcast live on Russian state television.

In comments that made clear Russia had no plans to give back the region, he set out moves to increase wages for 140,000 state workers in Crimea, boost pensions, turn the region into a tourism hub, protect energy links, end reliance on Ukraine for water and improve its roads, railways and airports.

Chants of “Russia!” and “Thank You!” from a Russian-flag-waving crowd greeted Medvedev on his visit to Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Some welcomed him with a hug and kiss.

“We will take care of Sevastopol. Everything will be fine,” he told the crowd on a visit aimed at cementing and celebrating Moscow’s acquisition of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

Underscoring Crimea’s rein-tegration into Russia, the foreign ministry issued a statement yesterday warning that foreigners would now require a Russian visa to travel to Crimea. Ukraine sent a protest note to Moscow over Medvedev’s trip, declaring that “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 landed in Simferopol hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris late on Sunday and reiterated that Washington considered Russia’s actions in Crimea “illegal and illegiti-mate”.

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