Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday urged pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a series of disputed referendums planned for this weekend on declaring greater autonomy or outright independence from Kiev.
The Kremlin chief also said Russia had pulled troops back from the Ukraine border and softened his criticism of plans by Ukraine’s interim leaders to stage a snap presidential poll on May 25, describing it as a “step in the right direction”.
Watch: Putin tells pro-Russian rebels to postpone referendum
The remarks – in sharp contrast to Russia’s previous tough tone in its worst stand-off with the West since the cold war – sent Moscow shares soaring three per cent amid hope that the months-long crisis may finally be easing.
Putin told visiting Swiss president and current OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter that he was in favour of postponing the secession referendums planned for Sunday in order to give talks between separatists and Kiev leaders a chance.
“We ask the representatives of the southeast to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue,” Putin said.
Pro-Russian militants who have seized government buildings in eastern regions such as Donetsk and Lugansk had announced plans to stage polls on secession from Kiev following the protest-led ouster in February of a Kremlin-backed regime.
The votes have been denounced as illegal by both Kiev and its allies in Washington and the European Union.
Russia had previously denounced as “absurd” the staging of the presidential election because of the military standoff between separatists and Kiev forces.
But on Wednesday, Putin said: “I would like to stress that the presidential elections planned in Kiev, while they are a move in the right direction, will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held.”
Ethnic Russians who make up a large part of the population in the southeastern half of the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million had expressed fears about losing their language and other rights under a new pro-Western government that is likely to emerge after the May 25 vote.
The veteran Russian strongman – already granted the right to use force against Ukraine by parliament – had previously vowed to use all means necessary to “protect” his fellow citizens in Ukraine.
Nato had previously estimated that the Kremlin had massed up to 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border as part of wide-scale drills that had prompted Western fears of an imminent Russia invasion reminiscent of its March seizure of Crimea.
Putin acknowledged Western concerns and said in his first such public comments that Russia had – at a point he failed to specify – already pulled back its troops.
“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” said Putin.
“We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds,” he said.
The OSCE leader said the pan-European security organisation planned later Wednesday to make a formal call on both Kiev and the separatists to agree to a “road map” toward peace that included an agreement to immediately cease fire.
Burkhalter added that his organisation was offering to help fund “a national disarmament plan that should be adopted by Ukraine”.