Ukraine unmoved by Russian appeal to separatist rebels
West makes renewed demands on Russia to withdraw troops from border zone
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk greets a security personnel member as he arrives to inspect the Ukrainian military grouping near Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday. Photograph: Reuters
Kiev has dismissed a Kremlin call for Ukrainian rebels to postpone independence referendums planned for Sunday, amid renewed western demands for Russia to withdraw troops from close to its beleaguered neighbour’s border.
“We believe the most important thing is to create direct, fully-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine,” said Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday.
“Because of this, we ask representatives of southeast Ukraine, supporters of federalisation in the country, to postpone the May 11th referendums in order to create the necessary conditions for such a dialogue.”
The United States and European Union believe Russia is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and backing rebels who have seized official buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where they intend to hold the plebiscites.
Washington and Brussels have threatened to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow if it supports the votes and undermines Ukrainian government efforts to hold a presidential election on May 25th.
Kiev believes Mr Putin wants to make Ukraine’s industrial east ungovernable and prevent the country making a decisive turn towards the EU, and Ukrainian officials saw yesterday’s comments as a Kremlin attempt to distance itself from the rebels and the unrest.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), trading in hot air is somehow unbecoming of you, as a president of a great country,” said Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, saying that no legal referendum was planned for Sunday.
“And if terrorists and separatists, supported by Russia, received an order to postpone something that was not planned, then it is their own internal dispute.”
Resolution of crisis
Mr Yatsenyuk also mocked Mr Putin’s expressed desire to make a strong contribution to resolving Ukraine’s crisis.
“It makes that every day, whether by sending intelligence agents, or weapons, or money,” he said.
“So the best contribution [Russia] could make would be to call off sabotage groups now located in Ukraine, condemn the terrorists, and convince them to give up their weapons, leave [occupied] buildings and surrender to the authorities.”
In some of his most conciliatory comments on the Ukrainian crisis, Mr Putin said the planned presidential election was “a move in the right direction” but “will not decide anything if all citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after elections are held”.
Mr Putin also refuted western claims that some 40,000 Russian troops were positioned close to Ukraine.
“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 regular tasks on training grounds,” he said.
The United States was unmoved, however.
“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal” of Russian forces from the border region, said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.”
Visiting Poland, Nato chief Anders Rasmussen said: “Russia should live up to its international commitments and stop supporting separatists and scale back troops from the border.”