The Kremlin's spokesman has outlined conditions under which the Kremlin would bless Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a secession referendum set for Sunday.
The Slon.ru website quoted Mr. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday as saying that if supporters of "federalization" in eastern Ukraine heed Mr. Putin's call to postpone the referendum, and if Kyiv halts its military operation against pro-Russian militants and moves to begin a "dialogue," the Ukrainian presidential election set for May 25 can legitimately be held.
Peskov added that the Kremlin is not negotiating with Kyiv authorities, and that Mr. Putin's proposal to postpone the referendum is "not a step towards Kyiv, but a step towards all the Ukrainian people," the website reported.
Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Putin urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone Sunday's secession referendum, saying he was making the request in order to "create the necessary condition for dialogue" with the Ukrainian government.
Speaking to reporters after meeting in Moscow with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Didier Burkhalter), the Russian president also gave a qualified endorsement of Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, calling it "a movement in the right direction." However, he added the vote will solve nothing if "all of Ukraine's citizens do not understand how their rights will be guaranteed" after the election.
Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk have said they plan to hold a referendum on Sunday (May 11) asking residents whether they favor an independent "Donetsk People's Republic." Separatists in the eastern region of Luhansk have said they will hold a similar referendum.
A separatist leader (Denis Pushilin) told the Reuters news agency that a "people's assembly" would discuss Mr. Putin's request to delay the vote, adding that they have the "utmost respect" for the Russian president.
Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Mr. Putin's call to postpone the referendum as "hot air."
Mr. Putin called on Ukrainian authorities to immediately cease what he called "military and punitive operations" in southeastern Ukraine.
He also insisted Russian military forces have been withdrawn from the Ukrainian border.
However, the White House said Wednesday "there's been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place."
Likewise, a NATO official told VOA the Western military alliance has "no indication of a change in the position of (Russian) military forces along the Ukraine border."
Meanwhile, skirmishes between Ukrainian government forces and armed pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine continued Wednesday.
Ukrainian security forces in Mariupol drove armed separatists out of the city council building. However, Western media reported that the Ukrainian forces abandoned the building later after a crowd of pro-Russian militants gathered outside.
The two sides also exchanged fire in a battle for control of a television station in Andreyevka, just outside the city of Slovyansk, a rebel stronghold. According to the Ukrainian government, security forces killed 30 separatist fighters in Slovyansk in a battle earlier this week.
Ukraine's Security Service said Wednesday that 14 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 66 wounded since the offensive was launched in mid-April.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's central bank announced it had received over $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The money is the first part of a $17 billion loan package.