Friday 19 January 2018

Putin softens tone over Ukraine

Pro-Russian activists stand outside the regional interior ministry building in in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)
Pro-Russian activists stand outside the regional interior ministry building in in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine (AP)

Vladimir Putin has softened his tone in the confrontation with the West, saying Russia has pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border and calling for a delay of a referendum on autonomy in Ukraine's restive east.

But there were no immediate signs that either move was truly happening or that they would cool the Ukrainian crisis. Nato and the US said they saw no indication of a Russian pullback, and the pro-Russia insurgents behind the referendum have not agreed to go along with Mr Putin's proposal.

In a Moscow meeting with Swiss president Didier Burkhalter, Mr Putin said Russian troops have been pulled back to their training grounds and locations for "regular exercises", but he did not specify whether those locations were in areas near its border with Ukraine.

A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman declined to say where the troops were now positioned.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US had "no evidence" of a pullback, and Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance had "not seen any sign that Russia is withdrawing its troops".

The Russian president also reiterated Russia's demand that Ukraine's military halt all operations against the pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings and police stations in at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine launched an offensive late last week to take back the buildings and towns under insurgent control. At least 34 people, including many rebels, have died in that offensive, the government said.

Many had feared that Sunday's vote would be a flashpoint for further violence between the rebels and Ukrainian troops. Insurgents were calling the ballot a vote on giving regions more autonomy, but Kiev authorities feared it could be a pretext for separatists or those who want the region to join Russia.

Russia annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March after residents there held a vote and overwhelmingly backed secession.

Mr Putin said: "We believe that the most important thing is to create direct, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine.

"Because of this, we ask that representatives of south-east Ukraine, supporters of federalisation in the country, postpone the May 11 referendum in order to create the necessary conditions for such a dialogue."

A spokesman for the militant group in eastern Ukraine that calls itself the Donetsk People's Republic was quoted by Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the group would discuss Mr Putin's proposal on Thursday.

But it is unclear how much influence Moscow has with the insurgents. The Kiev government and Western countries allege Russia is fomenting the unrest, but Russia denies it has agents there. Last month, after Russia, Ukraine, the US and the European Union reached a pact calling for Ukrainian militants to disarm, the insurgents in the east flatly rejected it, saying Russia had not negotiated on their behalf.

Many Donetsk residents appear eager to go ahead with the vote. "That Putin's personal opinion. He's a very wise man, but we have decided to do things our own way: to become the Donetsk Republic," said Ludmila Radchenko, 52, standing in a city square.

If the insurgents go ahead with the referendum, it could bolster Moscow's insistence that it is not directing the unrest. But it could also anger Western countries and increase the pressure for additional sanctions against Russia.

The referendum has been hastily arranged, with ballot papers being churned out by two clattering photocopy machines. There has been negligible campaigning for it, mostly consisting of graffiti. Many pavements have been spray-painted from stencils showing the word "referendum" next to a crossed-out swastika, reflecting the insurgents' contention that the government that took power in Kiev in February is fascist.

The referendum asks: "Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People's Republic?"

Despite the phrasing, organisers say only after the vote is held will they decide whether they want actual independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The head of the insurgents' elections commission was confident that the ballot would successfully take place. Denis Pushilin said: "We are certain that people are fully familiar with the issues.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is holding a nationwide presidential election on May 25. After his meeting with Swiss president Burkhalter, who also is chairman-in-office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Mr Putin said that presidential election was a "step in the right direction" but reiterated Russia's long-standing contention that it should be preceded by constitutional reforms.

The interim government in Kiev says Russia has no business telling it what type of government to set up and has been trying to interfere with the presidential vote for months.

Russia consistently characterises Ukraine's acting government as putschists. They took power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after months of protests in which more than 100 people died from sniper fire and in clashes with police. A democratic presidential election, however, could undermine Russia's stance.

In Berlin, a leading Ukrainian presidential candidate said he was prepared to negotiate some decentralisation of power as the pro-Russia insurgents in the east have demanded. But Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, added that some insurgents in the east understand only force and that restoring law and order was a key priority.

"We should speak to the people living in the east - speak and understand them," said Mr Poroshenko. But "for those people who are terrorists, we should find out the right language they understand - and that would be the language of force."

The US and European nations have increased diplomatic efforts ahead of Ukraine's presidential election. Jeffrey Feltman, the UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, met Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchynov yesterday after visiting Moscow a day earlier. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague also arrived in Kiev to speak with the nation's leaders.

Mr Hague said Ukrainians "cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and co-ordinated from another country, in this instance Russia".

In one sign of compromise from the authorities in Kiev, Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed "people's mayor" of Donetsk who was detained by Ukrainian authorities in March, has been set free. His release had been a top demand of the militants.

Press Association

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