KIEV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow will “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and work with the winner of Sunday’s presidential election there, signaling a potential way out of the crisis that has seen relations between the countries hit bottom.
“We are working with the people who control the government, but after the elections we will, of course, work with the newly elected structures as well,” Putin said Friday at an economic conference in St. Petersburg, state newswire RIA Novosti reported. “I hope that when the elections are held, all military activities will be ended immediately,” Putin added.
Putin’s comments appear to mark a turning point in Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine’s new government, which began to soften earlier this month when he spoke out against separatist referenda in two restive eastern Ukrainian provinces. Rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk went ahead with the polls on May 11 anyway and claimed overwhelming support for independence, despite obviously fatal flaws in the voting.
Putin said that Moscow would “respect” the result of the elections, but then ignored the separatists’ plea to incorporate the provinces into Russia the day after the vote. An appeal yesterday for Russia to recognize the two “people’s republics” also went unanswered.
Putin said that Russia had already convinced the separatists, who have appeared to run out of steam in recent weeks, and Kiev, which been unable to dislodge them from their eastern strongholds, to negotiate. Publicly, pro-separatist militia have vowed to disrupt the election and refused to to enter dialogue with Kiev. The government in Kiev, for its part, has labelled the separatists terrorist organizations.
Putin, however, took credit for talks he said were already ongoing. “Any conflicts inevitably end in negotiations, and the earlier they begin, the better,” Putin said. “That’s why we always pushed the conflicting sides to begin direct contact. The first contacts have happened, with our direct involvement,” he said.
Previously, Russia refused to recognize the interim government in Kiev, which it repeatedly said was run by neo-Nazis and fascists who seized power illegally after former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February. Ukraine’s government, formed by parliament in the chaotic days that followed, claims Russia organized and financed separatist militias in order to destabilize the country and undermine the elections.
Whether Putin has it in his power to stop the conflict in the east is unclear. In recent weeks, many of the estimated 2,000 separatist groups in Donetsk have begun to argue with each other and act on their own. Ukrainian forces suffered their heaviest losses yet Thursday after 16 reservists died during a shootout at a checkpoint in Volnovakha. The leadership of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” condemned the attack and denied responsibility for it, but another separatist group in the nearby city of Horlivka boasted of it to the Associated Press.
Polls show chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko as the overwhelming favorite in Sunday’s vote, with his 21 opponents all struggling to pull out of the single-digit range. A second round will be held June 15 if no candidate gets 50% of the vote.