[Photo: Pro Russian protesters in east Ukraine]
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to postpone a secession vote in the country’s east. Putin also said he was pulling Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border.
“We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11,” Putin said. His comments came after a meeting with the 2014 chairperson of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Didier Burkhalter.
Putin said the postponement would create conditions for dialogue between Kyiv and the separatists in what has been the worst crisis between East and West since the Cold War.
Putin also said he had pulled Russian troops back from the border with Ukraine, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops.
“We’re always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds,” Putin said.
However, both the Pentagon and NATO later said they had seen no signs of a pull-back from the frontier.
After the meeting between Putin and OSCE chief Burkhalter, the Russian president said he’s ready to discuss resolutions to Ukraine’s conflict.
“I know you have your own proposals, your ideas of how to find a way out of the situation that has occurred,” Putin said Wednesday. “Our position is known, too. Let’s try to analyze the situation and seek ways out of this crisis.”
Since Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, Russia proclaimed the right to send troops to Ukraine. The move resulted in the seizure and annexation of the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian government troops are continuing a military campaign to retake territory held by separatists in the east. Clashes between Kyiv’s forces and separatists have killed about 90 people in the past week.
Moscow has denied Western accusations that it was fomenting the unrest in Ukraine’s east.
The US and European Union have so far imposed limited sanctions on Russian individuals and small firms but have threatened to impose much wider sanctions if Moscow takes further steps to interfere in Ukraine.
On Wednesday evening, Washington said it was removing special trade benefits that mean Russian imports to the US are subject to lower tax rates. The White House said the move reflected Russia’s economic development and was not directly related to Ukraine.
hc/jm (Reuters, AFP, AP)