DONETSK, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia has pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border and called for Sunday’s referendum on autonomy in Ukraine’s restive east to be postponed.
There were no immediate signs, however, that either move was truly happening or that they would cool Ukraine’s worst crisis in decades. NATO and Washington said they saw no evidence of a Russian pullback and the pro-Russia insurgents behind the referendum haven’t agreed to go along with Putin’s proposal.
In a Moscow meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, Putin said Russian troops have been pulled back to their training grounds and locations for “regular exercises,” but didn’t specify whether those locations were in areas near its border with Ukraine.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman declined to say where the troops were now positioned.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. had “no evidence” of a pullback and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters “we have not seen any sign that Russia is withdrawing its troops.”
Putin also reiterated Russia’s demand that Ukraine’s military halt all operations against the pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings and police stations in at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine launched an offensive late last week to take back the buildings and towns under insurgent control. At least 34 people, including many rebels, have died in that offensive, the government said.
Many had feared that Sunday’s vote would be a flashpoint for further violence between the rebels and Ukrainian troops. Insurgents were calling the ballot a vote on giving regions more autonomy — but Kiev authorities feared it could be a pretext for separatists or those who want the region to join Russia.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March after residents there held a vote and overwhelmingly backed secession.
“We believe that the most important thing is to create direct, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine,” Putin said. “Because of this, we ask that representatives of southeast Ukraine, supporters of federalization in the country, postpone the May 11 referendum in order to create the necessary conditions for such a dialogue.”
A spokesman for the militant group in eastern Ukraine that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic was quoted by Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the group would discuss Putin’s proposal on Thursday.
However it is unclear how much influence Moscow has with the insurgents. The Kiev government and Western countries allege Russia is fomenting the unrest, but Russia denies it has agents there. Last month, after Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union reached a pact calling for Ukrainian militants to disarm, the insurgents in the east flatly rejected it, saying Russia had not negotiated on their behalf.
Many Donetsk residents appear eager to go ahead with the vote.
“That Putin’s personal opinion. He’s a very wise man, but we have decided to do things our own way: To become the Donetsk Republic,” said Ludmila Radchenko, 52, standing in a city square.
If the insurgents go ahead with the referendum, that could bolster Moscow’s contention it is not directing the unrest. But it could also anger Western countries and increase the pressure for additional sanctions against Russia.
The referendum has been hastily arranged, with ballot papers being churned out by two clattering photocopy machines. There’s been negligible campaigning for it, mostly consisting of graffiti. Many sidewalks have been spray-painted from stencils showing the word “referendum” next to a crossed-out swastika, reflecting the insurgents’ contention that the government which took power in Kiev in February is fascist.
“Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?” the referendum asks.
Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote is held will they decide whether they want actual independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.
The head of the insurgents’ elections commission was confident Wednesday that the ballot would successfully take place.
“We are certain that people are fully familiar with the issues,” Denis Pushilin told The Associated Press.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is holding a nationwide presidential election on May 25. After his meeting with Burkhalter, who also is chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Putin said that presidential election was a “step in the right direction” but reiterated Russia’s long-standing contention that it should be preceded by constitutional reforms.
The interim government in Kiev says Russia has no business telling it what type of government to set up and has been trying to interfere with the presidential vote for months.
Russia consistently characterizes Ukraine’s acting government as putschists; they took power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after months of protests in which more than 100 people died from sniper fire and in clashes with police. A democratic presidential election, however, could undermine Russia’s stance.
In Berlin, a leading Ukrainian presidential candidate said he was prepared to negotiate some decentralization of power as the pro-Russia insurgents in the east have demanded. But Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, added that some insurgents in the eastern region understand only force and that restoring law and order was a key priority.
“We should speak to the people living in the east — speak and understand them,” said Poroshenko. “(But) for those people who are terrorists, we should find out the right language they understand — and that would be the language of force.”
“We should have zero tolerance for terrorists,” he added.
The U.S. and European nations have increased diplomatic efforts ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election as the insurgency makes the east of the country increasingly unsafe for journalists and international observers. Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, met with Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov on Wednesday after visiting Moscow a day earlier. British Foreign Secretary William Hague also arrived in Kiev to speak with the nation’s leaders.
Ukrainians “cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country, in this instance Russia,” Hague said.
In one sign of compromise from the authorities in Kiev, Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Donetsk who was detained by Ukrainian authorities in March, was set free Wednesday. He was seen back in Slovyansk, the eastern city that is the epicenter of the armed insurgency. His release had been a top demand of the militants.