MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the outcome of Ukraine's presidential election. It is the first time he has explicitly indicated that he will accept Ukraine's election result.
Russia’s president said Friday he will “respect the will of the Ukrainian people.” It was the strongest endorsement yet by Vladimir Putin of Sunday’s vote. But it only came after repeated questioning at an economic conference in St. Petersburg attended by hundreds of foreign investors.
"After their election, of course we will cooperate with the newly elected head of state," he said.
Putin also said Western sanctions on Russia, imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean region, are having an effect on Russian business. He predicted the sanctions would eventually backfire on the countries imposing them.
Putin spoke the day after pro-Russia insurgents in southeastern Ukraine carried out a deadly attack, killing 13 Ukrainian soldiers at a military checkpoint. Many analysts believe the upsurge in violence is designed to scare voters away from polling stations in Russian-speaking areas.
President Putin and other Kremlin officials warned this week that Ukraine is sliding into civil war. But Friday, the Russian leader said he hopes that Sunday’s vote will mark a turning point.
"I hope that all military action will be immediately suspended after the elections,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said in St. Petersburg that Russia would judge the elections “based on whether the person elected will be accepted by the people of Ukraine, Ukraine's voters, or not.”
The Russian officials blamed the West for Ukraine’s conflict.
“I believe that everything that happened there is largely the responsibility of our European and U.S. partners, said Putin. "They backed this coup and plunged the country into chaos, and now they want to pass the buck to us so we clean up after them.”
In contrast, Ukrainian officials say Russia sent arms and military experts into southeast Ukraine, fanning regional discontent into a shooting war.
In Kyiv, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Friday in a national television broadcast: “We will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire.”
Richard Weitz, a security expert from research organization Hudson Institute, talked in Moscow about NATO’s changed outlook on military dangers from the east.
"In the past, NATO would hold these exercises, and pretend to protect an East European country from an invader, and pretend it was country X. Now they can say, well this is Russia," said Weitz.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote, Russia’s military moves on Ukraine have opened a new chapter in Russia’s relations with the West.