Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a secession vote set for Sunday.
Speaking Wednesday at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin also suggested publicly for the first time that Ukraine's May 25 presidential election -- the target of recent Kremlin scorn -- is now "a move in the right direction."
The surprise comments came during a meeting between the president and the visiting head of the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Separatist leader Denis Pushilin told Reuters that his followers will consider Mr. Putin's recommendation at a meeting Thursday.
Mr. Putin also said Russian military units massed on the Ukraine border have pulled back from their forward positions. However, the White House, the Pentagon and NATO all said no immediate signs of a withdrawal had been detected.
NATO and the Pentagon have identified at least 40,000 Russian troops and armor poised on the border in recent weeks. The troops' presence has drawn widespread criticism from Kyiv and from Western governments, which see the deployment as a move to intimidate Ukraine that has heightened tensions across much of the country.
A short while after Mr. Putin's comments, a Kremlin spokesman said the months-long Ukraine crisis could end if the Kyiv government ends its military push against separatist strongholds in eastern Ukraine, in exchange for a delay in the secession vote.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia's Slon.ru website that such moves could lead Ukraine out of a situation that is "only deteriorating now."
Separatists in the Donetsk region set a referendum for May 11, asking residents whether they favor an independent "Donetsk People's Republic." Cohorts in the eastern region of Luhansk have said they will hold a similar referendum.
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.
Ukraine's central bank announced it had received more than $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The money is the first part of a $17 billion loan package.