MOSCOW/MARIUPOL, Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin called Sunday for immediate talks on “statehood” for southern and eastern Ukraine, although his spokesman said this did not mean Moscow now endorsed rebel calls for independence for territory they have seized.
The Kremlin leader’s remarks, which follow a public appearance in which he compared the Kiev government with Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us,” came with Europe and the United States preparing new sanctions to halt what they say is direct Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine.
In the first naval attack of the four-month conflict, the separatists fired on a Ukrainian vessel in the Azov Sea Sunday. A Ukrainian military spokesman said a rescue operation was underway after the artillery attack from the shore.
Ukrainian troops and local residents were reinforcing the port of Mariupol Sunday, the next big city in the path of pro-Russian fighters who pushed back government forces along the Azov Sea this past week in an offensive on a new front.
Ukraine and Russia swapped soldiers who had entered each other’s territory near the battlefield, where Kiev says Moscow’s forces have come to the aid of pro-Russian insurgents, tipping the military balance in the rebels’ favor.
Talks should be held immediately “and not just on technical issues but on the political organization of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said in an interview with Channel 1 state television, his hair tousled by wind on the shore of a lake.
Moscow, for its part, he said, could not stand aside while people were being shot “almost at point blank.”
Putin’s use of the word “statehood” was interpreted in Western media as implying backing for the rebel demand of independence, something Moscow has so far stopped short of publicly endorsing.
However, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no new endorsement from Moscow for rebel independence. Asked if “New Russia,” a term pro-Moscow rebels use for their territory, should still be part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement.”
Rebels have rallied behind the term “New Russia” since Putin first used it in a public appearance in April. Putin called it a tsarist-era term for land that now forms southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians consider the term deeply offensive and say it reveals Moscow’s imperial designs on their territory.
Moscow has long called for Kiev to hold direct political talks with the rebels. Kiev says it is willing to have talks on more rights for the south and east, but will not talk directly to armed fighters it describes as “international terrorists” and Russian puppets that can only be reined in by Moscow.
The deputy leader of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Prugin, said he was due to participate in talks in the Belarus capital Minsk Monday.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the vessel which came under shellfire was a naval cutter. There was no information on the number of people on board.
The pro-Russian rebels claimed responsibility. “The militia have dealt the enemy their first naval defeat,” Igor Strelkov, a former separatist military commander, said on the social media network VKontakte.
The past week has seen Ukrainian forces flee in the path of a new rebel advance, drawing concern from Ukraine’s Western allies, who say armored columns of Russian troops came to the aid of a rebellion that would otherwise have been near collapse.
European Union leaders agreed Saturday to draw up new economic sanctions against Moscow, a move hailed by the United States, which is planning tighter sanctions of its own and wants to act jointly with Europe.
Some residents of Mariupol have taken to the streets of the port to show support for the Ukrainian government as pro-Russian forces gain ground. Many others have fled from the prospect of an all-out assault on the city of nearly 500,000 people.
“We are proud to be from this city and we are ready to defend it from the occupiers,” said Alexandra, 28, a post office clerk wearing a ribbon in blue and yellow Ukrainian colors.
“We will dig trenches. We will throw petrol bombs at them, the occupiers,” she said. “I believe our army and our [volunteer] battalions will protect us.”
Ihor, 42, and his wife Lena, 40, were packing their car to flee with their 5-year-old daughter.
They had sheltered in Mariupol after battle came to their home city Donetsk in July.
“We will not wait for another repetition of war. We did nothing to provoke it and we do not want to be a part of it,” Lena said.