DONETSK, Ukraine/MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to postpone a vote on secession just five days before it was to be held, potentially pulling Ukraine back from the brink of dismemberment.
It was the first sign the Kremlin leader has given that he would not endorse a referendum planned for Sunday by pro-Russian rebels seeking independence for two provinces with 6.5 million people and around a third of Ukraine’s industrial output.
In what suggested a breakthrough in the worst crisis between East and West since the Cold War, Putin also said he was pulling Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border.
However, a senior NATO official said the Western alliance had not seen any signs of a Russian pull-back from the frontier, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops, proclaiming the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian speakers.
The White House also said it had seen no evidence that troops had pulled back, and said it wanted a referendum on secession to be canceled, not merely postponed.
“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal” of Russian military forces, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama to Arkansas and California.
“To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place,” Earnest said.
“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.
He said this would create conditions for talks between the Ukrainian authorities and the separatists.
“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 We have withdrawn them.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.
The NATO official told Reuters in Brussels: “We have no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border.”
Putin spoke in Moscow after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a “road map” to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
A pro-Russian separatist leader said the separatists would consider Putin’s call to delay their referendum at a meeting of their self-proclaimed People’s Assembly Thursday.
“We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it,” Denis Pushilin told Reuters in Donetsk, a city of 1 million people which the rebels have proclaimed capital of an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
A rebellion in the east has raised the prospect that Ukraine, a country of around 45 million people the size of France, could be carved up or even descend into civil war, pitting Russian-speaking easterners against pro-European Ukrainian speakers in the West.
Residents in areas held by the pro-Moscow rebels were stunned by Putin’s remarks at a time when the region seemed to be hurtling toward inevitable independence and a week of bloodshed had brought animosity toward Kiev to a fever pitch.
“Maybe Putin doesn’t understand the situation? There is no way this referendum isn’t happening,” said Natalia Smoller, a pensioner who has been bringing food to rebels manning a roadblock in Slaviansk, a town turned into a fortified redoubt where fighters withstood a government advance this week. “There’s no turning back now. We won’t retreat. This either ends with our victory or – it doesn’t bear thinking about.”
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 annexation of Crimea in March but on a much larger scale. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the proposed referendum “contrived and bogus.”
Ukrainian government troops have launched a military campaign to retake territory held by separatists this week. Troops briefly captured the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port of Mariupol overnight, but quickly abandoned it, leaving it back in the hands of the separatists.
A week of violence in the east and in the southern city of Odessa, where more than 40 people died in clashes that ended with pro-Russian demonstrators trapped in a burning building, has hardened positions and spread the unrest.