Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to recognize the outcome of Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine, while voicing hope that Ukraine's new president will end military operations against separatists in the east.
Putin spoke Friday in St. Petersburg, as pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine ambushed a Ukrainian militia group near the Russian border, killing at least two Ukrainian volunteers and wounding nine others. Thirteen government troops were killed by separatists in the same area Thursday, raising fears of fresh violence in the runup to Sunday's vote.
Hours after Putin's comments, the U.S. State Department called on Moscow to pressure armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern cities to "cease their violent activities and lay down their arms" ahead of the voting. Spokeswoman Marie Harf also cited instances of missing ballot boxes and seized voter registration lists in the east as impediments to successful polls.
For its part, the interim Kyiv government has promised to halt anti-separatist operations to accommodate Sunday's vote, which is widely seen as the most important election since Ukraine gained independence with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Some analysts are interpreting the Russian president's comments as a sign the Kremlin is attempting to avoid more Western sanctions first imposed when Russian lawmakers voted to annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March.
Watch related video report by Al Pessin in Kyiv
In his comments, Putin voiced optimism about resolving the crisis in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, saying that doing so would improve relations with the United States. He also acknowledged that several rounds of increasingly strong U.S. sanctions since the Crimea annexation are having a negative impact on Russian commerce.
In Kyiv on Friday, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov urged all voters to participate in Sunday's ballot - a vote he said will "cement the foundation of our nation." However, it remained unclear whether any voting will take place in eastern cities where separatists have seized buildings and declared autonomous zones free of Ukrainian rule.
Twenty-one candidates are competing to become Ukraine's next president. Polls show billionaire candymaker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead, but falling just short of the absolute majority needed to claim a first round win.
Meanwhile, speaking about Russian military forces, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, "We have seen continued activity of preparations for departure of some units, not all. We have seen the movement of some units, not all. And I would remind you that there still remains a very sizable force along that border [with Ukraine], tens of thousand of soldiers still remain. While we do see some movement, it's too soon for us to say that this is the wholesale withdrawal that President Putin had ordered.
"There are still tens of thousands of troops there and their presence alone just continues to escalate the tensions in that part of Ukraine and it's unhelpful. It is unproductive. It is not necessary. And nothing has changed about Secretary Hagel's desire to see those troops leave," he said.
Kirby added additional concerns. "We still believe, we’ve said this and maintained this, that there are forces controlled by Moscow, by the Russian military inside Ukraine and they remain there. We think the Ukrainian armed forces have shown both great restraint and they have shown courage in trying to restore law and order inside their borders," he said.
A car wash is seen after it was destroyed by shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk, Ukraine, May 23, 2014.
A local looks at a damaged vehicle following a gun battle in the rural settlement of Karlovka, west of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 23, 2014.
People walk next to an armoured vehicle left as a monument at the Independence Square, Kyiv, May 23, 2014.
A woman takes a picture of an armoured vehicle in Independence Square, Kyiv, May 23, 2014.
A pro-Russian man with a black and orange ribbon of St. George attached to his weapon stands in Slovyansk, Ukraine, May 23, 2014.
Oleh Lyashko, leader of Ukrainian Radical Party and presidential candidate, speaks to self-defense volunteers at a training ground outside Kyiv, May 23, 2014.