Putin Calls for Talks on East Ukraine ‘Statehood’

(Reuters) -
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a terrestrial globe presented to him as a gift during his meeting with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometers northwest of Moscow. (Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a terrestrial globe presented to him as a gift during his meeting with participants in the youth educational forum at the Seliger youth camp near Lake Seliger, some 450 kilometers northwest of Moscow. (Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
An OSCE member observes damage caused by shelling near the train station in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday. Heavy shelling from an unknown source hit a railway station and a nearby market on Friday evening in Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine, an OSCE observer said at the site.  (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)
An OSCE member observes damage caused by shelling near the train station in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday. Heavy shelling from an unknown source hit a railway station and a nearby market on Friday evening in Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine, an OSCE observer said at the site. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on the “statehood” of 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, two days after a public appearance in which he compared the Kiev government with Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us,” came as Europe and the United States prepared possible further sanctions to halt what they say is direct Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine. Germany aired suspicions that Moscow might be trying to create a land corridor to supply Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in March, while the four-month conflict moved onto the sea for the first time on Sunday. The separatists said they had fired on a Ukrainian vessel in the Azov Sea using land-based artillery, and a military spokesman in Kiev said a rescue operation was under way.

Ukrainian troops and local residents were reinforcing the port of Mariupol on 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 media. 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.

Troop Swap

The swap of soldiers overnight at the frontier was a rare gesture to ease tension, but Kiev and Moscow have given starkly opposing accounts of how their troops came to be on each other’s territory. A Russian commander said an unspecified number of Russian paratroops were swapped for 63 Ukrainian soldiers. Kiev said the Russian soldiers numbered nine.

Kiev and its allies in Europe and the United States say the new rebel offensive has been backed by more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting openly to support the insurgents. The rebels themselves say thousands of Russian troops have fought on their behalf while “on leave.”

Reuters journalists on the Russian side of the border have seen Russian troops showing signs of having returned from battle, with their insignia removed or rubbed out.

Despite the evidence, Moscow denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine and says a small party of soldiers crossed the border by accident. Russian Major-General Alexei Ragozin said the paratroops were handed back after “very difficult” negotiations.

Sanctions

The United States and EU have gradually tightened economic sanctions against Russia, first imposed after Moscow annexed Crimea following the ousting of Kiev’s pro-Russian president by protesters.

So far, however, the measures have done little to deter Putin, who gave a typically defiant public appearance on Friday in which he described Russians and Ukrainians as “practically one people” and compared Kiev’s attempts to recapture rebellious cities with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Russia is a strong nuclear power, and foreigners should understand that “it’s best not to mess with us,” he said.

Moscow has responded to sanctions by banning the import of most Western foodstuffs and shutting down McDonald’s restaurants. The moves reinforce a sense among Russians that they are isolated from a hostile world, as in Cold War days.

Agreeing the Western sanctions has been tricky, not least because the 28-member EU must take decisions by consensus and many of its countries depend on Russian energy resources.

Nevertheless, the EU has gone further than many had predicted, agreeing to impose sanctions on Russia’s financial and oil industries last month after the Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel territory, killing nearly 300 people, most of them Dutch.

EU leaders agreed on Saturday to ask the executive European Commission to draw up more sanctions measures, which could be adopted in coming days.

The White House praised the move to “show strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But in a sign of the difficulty in achieving an EU consensus, the leader of Slovakia said sanctions had failed so far and threatened to veto any new ones that damaged his country’s national interest.