Putin urges talks on ‘statehood’ in east Ukraine
Russian president says he cannot stand by on conflict; EU proposes further Moscow sanctions
Inhabitants of Mariupol form a human chain in support of Independent Ukraine and against war on the eastern side of Mariupol in the Donetsk region yesterday. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/EPA
Russian president Vladimir Putin called today for meaningful talks between pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and the Kiev government on issues including “political organisation and statehood“ to protect people living there.
Asked about Mr Putin’s remarks quoted by Tass news agency, a Kremlin spokesman said the president was not calling for a separate state in the region, adding it should remain part of Ukraine and calling the crisis there a domestic conflict.
“Substantive, meaningful talks should begin immediately ... related to the issues of society‘s political organisation and statehood in southeastern Ukraine to protect legitimate interests of people living there,” Tass quoted Mr Putin as saying.
Asked later about Putin’s remarks, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk: “This is not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this is a domestic Ukrainian conflict.”
Pressed on whether Moscow felt that “Novorossiya” - the name the rebels give to the widely Russian-speaking region in dispute - should remain part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with Novorossiya, taking into account the interests of Novorossiya, and this is the only way to reach political settlement,” Mr Peskov said.
Kiev and its allies in Europe and the United States - who have imposed sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine - say a new separatist offensive in its east has been backed by armoured columns of more than 1,000 Russian troops.
Mr Putin told Russia’s state TV Channel 1: “It must be borne in mind that Russia cannot stand aside when people are being shot at almost at point blank,” but he did not acknowledge direct Russian intervention in the conflict.
He has repeatedly denied Russian troops are involved and accused Kiev of using excessive force against Russian speakers.
Asked if it was possible to predict the end of the crisis in Ukraine, RIA news agency quoted Mr Putin as telling the TV channel: “No. It largely depends on the political will of current Ukrainian authorities.”
Mr Putin added that his meeting with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Minsk last week was “good“, calling Mr Poroshenko a “partner with whom it is possible to have a dialogue“.
Yesterday Mr Poroshenko said he was hoping for a political solution, but warned that Ukraine - like Russia a former Soviet republic - was on the brink of full-scale war.
European Union leaders decided at a summit yesterday to draw up proposals within a week for further sanctions against Russia in the light of mounting evidence of its military involvement in Ukraine, something Moscow continues to deny.
Earlier, Ukraine handed over a group of captured Russian paratroops and Russia has returned 63 Ukrainian soldiers who crossed into its territory last week.
RIA news agency quoted Russian Major-General Alexei Ragozin as saying the paratroops had been handed back after “very difficult” negotiations and after what he called an unacceptable delay.
Ukraine said last week it had captured 10 paratroops and presented them to the press as evidence that the Russian military is fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia said the men had crossed an unmarked section of the border by accident.
The handovers appeared to mark a slight easing in tension between the two countries after a sharp escalation late last week, when the rebels - supported, according to Kiev, by Russian armoured columns - opened a new front in the fighting by capturing the southern coastal town of Novoazovsk.
Ukraine had previously said the men were on a “special mission” and had been detained for crossing the border illegally and supporting a “terrorist organisation”, the term it uses to refer to the separatists. Its military spokesman mocked the idea they had “got lost like Little Red Riding Hood in the forest”.
Ragozin criticised Ukraine’s behaviour over the incident.
“I consider it unacceptable that our servicemen were detained by the Ukrainian side for so many days,” he said.
Ragozin said Russia, by contrast, had promptly returned ‘hundreds’ of Ukrainian soldiers who at various times have crossed the border when squeezed by rebel forces. He said the latest group of 63 had entered Russia on Wednesday.
“Our lads are upset about everything that happened. They will all receive the necessary psychological and other kinds of help. The lads will all be OK,” Ragozin said.