Saturday, December 27, 2014

Putin talks about 'statehood' for eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin , after his talks Wednesday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. AP, Pool
Russian President Vladimir Putin , after his talks Wednesday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. AP, Pool
MOSCOW - Seeming to be searching for the right word during a prerecorded television interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Sunday that one of the issues to be resolved in the Ukrainian conflict is "statehood" for the eastern regions now controlled by separatists.

That's a new idea, and if he meant it, it would raise the stakes considerably in the nearly 10-month-old Ukrainian crisis.

Earlier in the day, the European Union delayed imposing new economic sanctions on Russia but promised that if there is no policy change from Moscow within a week, more sanctions will be put in place.

The decision by the EU came as Ukraine's military said coast guard vessels were attacked from a beachfront in the village of Bezimenne, in the first significant land-to-sea battle of the conflict. Witnesses said men in military fatigues descended on the beach in armored personnel carriers and shot at two coast guard vessels, hitting one. Bezimenne is close to Novoazovsk, a town that pro-Russian insurgents took over late last week, allegedly backed by Russian soldiers and artillery.

As Putin's interview was being broadcast, Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, went into damage-control mode, saying that Putin was calling for dialogue, not sovereignty for the region, when he urged "substantive, meaningful negotiations" on questions concerning the "political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine."

Putin has said repeatedly that he does not favor the breakup of Ukraine - though Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March - but wants greater autonomy for the east.

The term statehood suggests more than that, though, and if the word choice reflected a shift in Kremlin policy, it would ratchet up Moscow's challenge not only to Kiev, but also to the United States and Western European nations trying to force Putin to back down. Alternatively, it could suggest uncertainty on Putin's part as to how he wants to push ahead on Ukraine.

"The president was talking about inclusive talks," Peskov said of the interview, in which Putin also called for an end to hostilities before winter and criticized European leaders for supporting Kiev's military campaigns against pro-Russian separatists.

"The way, extent, and mechanisms of this process - that's what the president meant," Peskov said, in remarks to Russian news agencies.

Months ago, separatists backed by Russia declared independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, but Moscow has until now refrained from recognizing them.

Yet Western leaders believe that Russia has designs on eastern Ukraine. And even as the European Union warned Russia on Sunday that, unless it backs off, it should expect to be slapped with new, stiffer economic sanctions in less than a week, an increasing number of voices called for more drastic steps.

In Washington, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should supply arms to Ukraine. "We should be providing the Ukrainians with the type of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon Putin for further aggression," he said on CNN's State of the Union. "Thousands of Russian troops are directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion."

Though a few European leaders, such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, support aiding Ukraine militarily, the EU is highly unlikely to agree to such a course.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had hoped the EU would broaden the list of arms available to Ukraine to help fight the separatists.

The area where the coast guard vessels were fired upon Sunday has become the focus of attention in recent days amid fears that the separatists will expand the conflict west to the key port city of Mariupol and toward Crimea.

In Novoazovsk, however, fewer sightings of Russian tanks were reported. Ukrainian troops noted only two, parked at the city entrances with the flag of "Novorossiya" - an 18th-century word for eastern Ukrainian lands settled by Russians, and one that has been revived by the Kremlin. In the town itself, life returned to a semblance of normal, with shops and markets reopening.

NATO has cited evidence presented by Ukrainian authorities as well as its own satellite imagery to conclude that Russia has been supplying separatists with military material and has been firing on Ukrainian forces - including from within Ukraine.

While Kiev and its allies see the crisis in eastern Ukraine as an armed rebellion fomented and aided by Moscow, Russians have argued that it is a fight for self-determination.

Karoun Demirjian and Annie Gowen Washington Post
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