Russian President Vladimir Putin called on separatists in east Ukraine on Wednesday to postpone a referendum on secession for the mostly Russian-speaking region and said Moscow had withdrawn troops from the border with Ukraine.
By potentially forestalling a dismemberment of Ukraine, Putin’s comments appeared to open a way to easing the East-West standoff over Russia’s role in the country’s crisis.
The pro-Russian separatists behind the referendum said they would consider on Thursday whether to postpone Sunday’s vote.
Putin said he issued the call in order to “create the necessary conditions for dialogue.”
Reacting to the appeal, the White House said the referendum should be canceled altogether, not merely postponed.
Suggesting another potential breakthrough, Putin added that Russians troops that had been placed near the border with Ukraine had been withdrawn.
But the Pentagon says it has not seen any signs of troop movements. NATO and Ukrainian officials say they, too, have seen no evidence of any withdrawal.
The White House said it would welcome a pull-back.
“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of Russian military forces from the border. That’s something that we have sought for quite some time,” said a spokesperson, adding that there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.
In another reversal, Putin said that presidential elections in Ukraine, scheduled for May 25, would be “a move in the right direction.”
He made his comments after talks with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who said the security and rights body would soon propose a “road map” to defuse the crisis in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Putin’s appeal for a postponement of the referendum, describing it with a term equivalent to “hot air.” He also questioned why the issue of Ukraine was being discussed without Kyiv’s participation.