ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called on Ukraine to begin talks on “the statehood” of that country’s rebellious southeast, a vague and provocative turn of phrase as he demanded that the Ukrainian government negotiate directly with pro-Russia separatists.
Western governments have accused Russia of backing the separatists with weapons and fighters and of sending Russian troops to lead a counteroffensive in Ukraine last week that threatened Mariupol, a key port city, leaving thousands of government troops encircled.
“We must immediately begin substantive, meaningful negotiations, not on technical questions, but about the political organization of society and the statehood of Ukraine’s southeast for the unconditional securing of the legal interests of the people who live there,” Mr. Putin said.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said the Russian leader was not calling for independence for eastern Ukraine.
Rather, he said, Mr. Putin sought inclusive talks that would provide greater autonomy for the country’s southeast as it remained a part of the country.
The self-proclaimed independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, which held haphazard referendums on independence in May, repeatedly have asked for Russian recognition, protection, and annexation.
Though the Kremlin annexed Crimea in March, it has avoided formally recognizing the separatist states.
Mr. Putin spoke Sunday on a televised news show in Moscow as European leaders vowed at a summit in Brussels to toughen economic sanctions against Russia by the end of the week if the Ukraine conflict continued to escalate.
In the interview, Mr. Putin veered between veiled threats and demands for talks to resolve the conflict. He said that country should cease hostilities immediately and renew its supplies of natural gas, which are piped in from Russia, to survive the winter.
“I think that nobody thinks of that anymore, except Russia,” he said of the winter. “There are ways of helping resolve the issue.
“First, to immediately stop hostilities and start restoring the necessary infrastructure. To start replenishing reserves, conducting the necessary repair operations, and preparing for the cold season.”
He gave rare praise to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after meeting him in Minsk, Belarus, calling Mr. Poroshenko “a partner with whom dialogue can be conducted.”
On Sunday, meanwhile, Russia announced that Ukraine had returned 10 army paratroopers who were arrested last week inside Ukraine.
Russia said that the men had strayed into Ukrainian territory by accident.