DONETSK, Ukraine — The pro-Russian militants who have put this country on the brink by seizing buildings and declaring independent republics in the east appeared to be ready to soften their tactics Wednesday, and politicians saw an opportunity to promote a deal.
A new regional poll showed very limited support for the building occupations, and even pro-Russian party leaders began to suggest that the agitators should call it a day.
Negotiations were taking place here in the city of Donetsk, and the governor said he was hopeful that an agreement that included an amnesty for the protesters would be reached by as early as Thursday.
But a deal could still go wrong. The separatists are part of a ragged, murky and disjointed movement, without identifiable leaders, and the politicians on the other side, from various parties, are sure to be looking for personal advantage.
The authorities in Kiev, echoed by officials in Washington, accuse Russia of trying to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine as a prelude to a Crimea-style invasion, and Moscow’s unspecified intentions loom over everything. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that Ukraine’s ever-mounting debt to Russia now totals $16 billion.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who spoke by phone with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, said Moscow is willing to sit down with representatives of the United States, the European Union and Ukraine to discuss the crisis, according to a ministry statement.
Here in the east, the tension diminished. In the city of Luhansk on Wednesday morning, 56 people who police said had been held hostage by militants occupying the state security agency’s regional headquarters were released.
In Donetsk, protesters were in discussions about freeing up at least part of the occupied 11-story administration building so that the regional council could get back to work.
This may be partly attributable to pressure from Kiev, where Interior Minister Arsen Avakov vowed Wednesday morning to use force against the protesters if no deals are reached by Friday. Armored personnel carriers were spotted gathering in Luhansk.
But a political operative here in Donetsk, Oleksandr Yaroshenko, who has worked with the parties now in power in Kiev, worried that the politicians there may be finding it useful to have a continuing emergency on their hands — and that this could mean a postponing of the May 25 presidential election.
That, he said, could prevent a truce from being reached.
On the other side of the fence, a leading member of the Party of Regions, which was ousted from power in February, called on the protesters in Donetsk to go home.
“Those who have occupied buildings, especially those with weapons, pose a danger to everyone in Donbass,” said Nikolai Levchenko, who until recently had been seen as one of the most pro-Russian officeholders here in Donetsk, the center of the Donbass region.
A local journalist, Yekaterina Zhemchuzhnikova, said Levchenko and his coal-baron patron, Rinat Akhmetov, are most likely trying to make themselves look like heroes and wangle concessions out of Kiev in the process. “It’s a really good card for them to play,” she said.
But they might simply be reacting to public opinion. A poll released Wednesday found that just 26.5 percent of Donetsk residents surveyed support the pro-Russian rallies and that only 4.7 percent want the region to break off from Ukraine, one of the main demands of the protesters. The survey was conducted March 26 to 29 by the Donetsk Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis.
A poll conducted by the Gallup organization on behalf of the International Republican Institute and released Saturday found that just 4 percent of respondents want the region to break away.
But Levchenko noted Wednesday that even among supporters of the protests, there is a diversity of opinions about ultimate goals and no single person to speak for the separatists.
“We don’t have a leader,” said Kirill Cherkashin, a professor of political science who is pro-
Russia, “but we have a very clear idea.” That, he said, is a demand for a referendum on the status of Donbass. He said a “civilized” resolution to the Ukrainian crisis is possible but unlikely.
“I can’t believe in the authorities in Kiev,” Cherkashin said.
But the Kiev government does not believe that many of the protesters are who they say they are and consider them agents or friends of Moscow. And that view has support elsewhere.
“There is ample evidence, both in traditional and social media and elsewhere, that some of the protesters are being paid, that they’re not locals, and that is certainly of concern to us,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said Wednesday.
In his conversation with Kerry, Lavrov said Russia was willing to discuss the situation with the United States, the E.U. and Ukraine as long as the Kiev government takes all of Ukraine’s regions into consideration. Russia has complained that Kiev has been acting against the interests of the Russian-speaking east.
“The Russian side once again stressed that there is no alternative to the involvement of all the regions in the process of constitutional reform,” the Foreign Ministry said.
In a second phone call Wednesday, Kerry and Lavrov discussed “the importance of resolving the security situation in key cities in Eastern Ukraine peacefully and through dialogue” and rejected the use of force, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
In his earlier conversation, Lavrov also accepted Kerry’s assurances that there was no evidence that Greystone, a private U.S. security firm, was operating in Ukraine. Russian officials had asserted that Greystone, a subsidiary to a successor of the Blackwater security company, had been hired to operate in Ukraine.
In a statement, Greystone said it “does not currently, nor do we have any plans to, send personnel to the Ukraine.”
Kathy Lally in Moscow contributed to this report.