Putin calls on Ukraine separatists to postpone referendum
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone plans for a May 11 referendum on whether to declare greater independence from Ukraine.
It was the first sign Putin has given that he would not endorse the referendum, and has been seen as a possible breakthrough in Ukraine’s crisis, which has triggered the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Putin announced after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, that he called “on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalisation of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11.”
He said this would create conditions for dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities in the capital Kiev and the separatists, some of whom want greater autonomy while others demand secession.
Putin also announced that he was withdrawing Russian forces from the Ukrainian border, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops, claiming the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers within its borders.
"We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border. We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds," Putin said.
NATO, the Pentagon and the White House said, however, that they had not seen any signs of a Russian pull-back from the border.
Ukraine’s government and its Western allies have urgently sought to halt the referendum, which they feared would lead to a repeat of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, but on a much larger scale.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the proposed referendum “contrived and bogus”.
Last week, Ukrainian forces launched a major military campaign to retake territory held by separatists in the east. Despite the offensive, the unrest spread to the country’s southern port city of Odessa, where more than 40 people were killed in street battles and a fire.
The United States and European Union, which have so far imposed only limited sanctions targeting Russian nationals and small firms, have threatened to impose much wider sanctions on Russian industry if Moscow took further steps to interfere in Ukraine.
Sunday’s planned referendum was seen as a potential trigger for such sanctions.
The prospect that further sanctions might be imposed on Moscow has already hurt Russia’s economy indirectly by scaring investors into pulling out capital and forcing the central bank to raise interest rates to protect the rouble.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)