In an apparent attempt to halt the escalating violence in southeastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Russia was pulling troops back from the border, and he urged Ukrainian separatists to call off a referendum on sovereignty they had hoped to hold Sunday.
Speaking at the Kremlin after talks with the president of Switzerland, who is acting as the chief mediator for Europe in the crisis, Putin said Russia wanted to give diplomacy a chance.
“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Putin said. “We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds.”
NATO officials said they saw no immediate sign that Russian forces had pulled back, news services reported from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One that while the United States would welcome a Russian military pullback from the Ukraine border region, “there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.”
Citing negotiations between Ukrainian separatists and the interim government in Kiev, Putin also said he was appealing “to representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalization to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.”
The reaction in Kiev and among the separatists in southeastern Ukraine was a combination of suspicion and mistrust. In Ukraine, there was a feeling that Putin was again seeking to manipulate the situation, while the separatists either declined to comment or said they were unsure exactly to whom the Russian leader was appealing.
Putin said he wanted the authorities in Kiev to immediately halt all military actions in southeastern Ukraine, referring to them again as “punitive operations.” He also welcomed the release of militants the Ukrainians had been holding, particularly Pavel Gubarev, a “people’s governor” in Donetsk who had been detained by Ukrainian security services.
“We think the most important thing now is to launch direct dialogue, genuine, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine,” he said, standing next to Didier Burkhalter, president of Switzerland and chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is coordinating the mediation.
“This dialogue could give people from southeast Ukraine the chance to see that their lawful rights in Ukraine really will be guaranteed,” he said. Putin also left the door open to Russia accepting, under certain conditions, the May 25 presidential elections, which Moscow had previously rejected.
“Let me stress that the presidential election the Kiev authorities plan to hold is a step in the right direction, but it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place,” Putin said.
Putin was basically demanding that the mediation achieve what Russia has been seeking since the rebellion in Kiev overthrew Ukraine’s leader and Moscow’s ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, on Feb. 28: that Kiev grant some level of autonomy to the regions, including electing their own governors and directing their own foreign policy with their immediate neighbors.
Such a change would allow Russia some measure of control over the future direction of Ukraine and a possible veto over Ukraine’s attempts to join the European Union or, worse from Russia’s viewpoint, NATO.
“We all want the crisis to end as soon as possible, and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine no matter where they live,” said Putin, according to the official Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
Given Russia’s record in Crimea, where Putin repeatedly denied that Russia’s soldiers were involved, only to admit later that they were, there was some chance that it was all a feint. Previously, for example, senior defense officials have said Russia was withdrawing what Western officials said were 40,000 troops from the border to barracks. But the soldiers remained.
Both Crimea and southeastern Ukraine have large populations of ethnic Russians, and Putin has insisted on Moscow’s right to intervene to protect them if they are endangered. Western governments have accused the Kremlin of fomenting the very unrest and violence that Putin has vowed to protect ethnic Russians against.
The pro-Russian militants who have seized public buildings in at least a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine have said they will hold a referendum on the future of the region on Sunday, creating a possible flash point with the interim government in Kiev.
On Wednesday, the militants controlling at least a dozen towns in southeastern Ukraine seemed perplexed by the Kremlin’s announcement. Both Moscow and the militants have repeatedly said that their actions are not coordinated, despite the presence of well-trained men Ukraine accuses of being Russian military.