MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to take steps Wednesday to pull Ukraine back from an escalating cycle of violence, asking pro-Russian separatists in the country to postpone a Sunday referendum on independence and indicating that he may be willing to recognize a national election later this month.
The statements marked a significant shift in tone from the hard line that Putin and other top Russian officials have taken for months toward the acting government in Kiev, which took power after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February in the face of popular protests.
But key questions remained about whether Putin’s efforts would actually rein in violence, including whether Russia retained control over the bands of armed separatists who have taken over cities across eastern Ukraine and whether his proposals were palatable to the Ukrainians.
“All of us are interested in settling this crisis, in settling it as soon as possible, accounting for the interests of all Ukrainian citizens irrespective of their place of residence,” Putin said, speaking in Moscow alongside Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who is leading negotiations as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Putin said that putting off the referendum on whether to establish independence from Kiev would help create the “necessary conditions of dialogue” with the acting central government.
Putin’s statements came after a week of escalating violence as Ukrainian authorities attempted to regain control over the east, largely without success. Many Ukrainians fear fresh violence on Victory Day, the annual May 9 holiday that holds deep significance for Russians because it marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union during World War II.
Putin also expressed qualified support for Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, a vote aimed at legitimizing a new government that would replace the current interim administration. Kremlin officials had previously said they would consider the election illegitimate if it were held in a climate of violence, while the United States and its allies had warned against delay or disruption.
The Obama administration offered a muted response to Putin’s remarks, emphasizing the need for actions in addition to words.
“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal” of Russian troops deployed along Ukraine’s border, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.”
Ukraine had never recognized the planned referendum as legitimate, and officials in Kiev reacted dismissively to Putin’s move. Even before Putin’s request for a delay, the referendum’s success had been in doubt, with each city organizing its own balloting and popular enthusiasm limited at best.
The separatists called the referendum to decide whether the eastern region of Ukraine, the country’s industrial heartland, should declare independence and become the sovereign republic of Novorossiya, the czarist-era name for part of the area.
It was not immediately clear whether the separatists would heed Putin’s request for a postponement. According to Reuters, Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader in Donetsk, said, “We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it.’’
Apart from the Sunday vote, the Kremlin has pushed for a version of federalization in Ukraine that would keep eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population, within Russia’s orbit. Ukrainian leaders in Kiev have said they would not agree to such a move, which would delegate authority over law enforcement and foreign policy to the country’s regions.
Putin said a presidential election would be “a movement in the right direction, but only if all citizens of Ukraine understand that their rights are guaranteed.’’
The Russian leader also said Wednesday that he had pulled back some forces from Ukraine’s borders. But the claim was immediately contradicted by U.S. and NATO officials, who said they had “seen no change” in Russian troops in the region.
“We would know,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven C. Warren told reporters. Senior Russian defense officials also said late last month that they were pulling troops back but did not appear to do so, Western officials said.
Andriy Parubiy, who leads Ukraine’s equivalent of the National Security Council, said Putin’s remarks should be seen as confirmation that the Kremlin has been stoking the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine all along. If Putin was making a concession, Parubiy said, it was because of the military campaign that Ukrainian forces have launched in recent days to regain control in the east.
“This is also evidence of the fact that the Ukrainian government is going in the right direction and successfully protecting its national interests,” Parubiy said through an interpreter during an interview at his office in Kiev on Wednesday.
Parubiy said he had just met with local separatist leaders in the eastern regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, armed with a presidential decree of amnesty for those willing to lay down their arms. He said the two sides could negotiate a satisfactory solution on autonomy and other issues without Russia’s interference.
Analysts said Wednesday that Putin may also have been searching for a way to avoid having to send in troops if the situation escalated further. Doing so would almost certainly have resulted in Ukrainian forces fighting back — unlike Putin’s swift move in March to annex the Crimean Peninsula — and could have quickly diminished his popularity at home, which has risen to vertiginous heights during his handling of the crisis.
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said last week that any attempt to disrupt the May 25 election would trigger broad sectoral economic sanctions against Russia.
Burkhalter said the OSCE would suggest a road map in Moscow for Ukraine that would include a cease-fire, a de-escalation of tensions, dialogue and elections. A proposal that he outlined Tuesday ahead of the meeting with Putin offered a nonbinding poll to be held in conjunction with the elections that would sample citizens’ attitudes about how much control they want the central government in Kiev to have over its far-flung regions.
Speaking in Kiev before Putin made his surprise call for postponement of the separatist referendum, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters that a failure to hold the May 25 election as scheduled would be “a terrible blow for democracy.”
In interviews in the eastern city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces battled Wednesday with separatists, detaining dozens but leaving a motley crew of them to occupy the city council building, residents said they wished for a return to peace and normalcy, and most welcomed Putin’s statement.
“I was born in Voronezh in Russia, and I have relatives there, but nobody should interfere in the internal affairs of another country,’’ said a shopkeeper who gave her name only as Anna. She held up her hand and said “Ukraine.” She did not want to be fully identified for fear of retaliation.
Kunkle reported from Kiev and Denyer reported from Mariupol. Alex Ryabchyn in Donetsk and Karen DeYoung and Ernesto Londoño in Washington contributed to this report.