“But let them hold it like that, at least,” Putin said today at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. He said Russia wants “the situation to calm down” and will “respect the will of the Ukrainian people.”
His comments come amid persistent clashes in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. The government in Kiev said that five volunteers were killed in fighting today. Yesterday more than 20 people, mostly soldiers, were killed in an attack by rebels near Donetsk, the deadliest since the conflict began.
“After the elections, we will work with the new elected institutions,” said Putin who pointed to the violence as proof that Ukraine is in a civil war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier today that Russia will wait until the results of the May 25 vote and a possible runoff before making a decision on recognizing the winner.
Yet Putin’s message on the election was mixed. He also said that “strictly speaking, under the current constitution, it’s impossible to hold an election” because former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February after mass protests, “wasn’t removed from power using constitutional methods.”
Responding to Putin’s comments, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia was cited by Interfax as saying that “if this really happens, we will welcome not just Russia’s statement, but also its particular actions to recognize the Ukrainian government.”
The U.S. “would welcome Russian acknowledgment and acceptance of the election results” and wants Putin to use his influence with Russian separatists to halt their violent activities, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington today.
Putin has also put out contradictory messages on the withdrawal of what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization says are 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s borders. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen complained this week that Putin has pledged pullbacks three times without moving any substantial forces.
Putin said on May 21 that the soldiers would withdraw “when the weather is good.” Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s General Staff, said today that the withdrawal began May 19 and will take about 20 days.
Russian stocks rose, with the Micex Index (INDEXCF) adding 0.6 percent to post a fourth straight weekly gain. The ruble rose 0.5 percent against the dollar, extending its gain since Putin’s incursion into Crimea started on March 1 to 5 percent.
Kremlin officials understand that they need to work with whoever wins the elections in Ukraine, said Boris Makarenko, a deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
“So long as there are no major incidents, the Kremlin will say that they respect the results,” Makarenko said by phone. “They may point out that the conditions were far from ideal, but they will accept the vote.”
Russia has been voicing a more moderate stance on the elections as the U.S. and Europe threaten wider sanctions if Putin disrupts the vote, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Putin wants to avert more Western sanctions,” Lipman said. At the same time, “Russia wants to avoid any possibility that Ukraine will move toward normalcy and the Western orbit.”
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic with 45 million people, shares borders with four NATO and EU member states: Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine continued today as a pro-government force in Donetsk, the Battalion Donbas, was ambushed near the village of Karlivka by separatists, Semen Semenchenko, the head of the battalion, wrote on his Facebook page this morning. Nine soldiers, who were wounded by gunfire, grenades and snipers, have been taken to a hospital, he said.
The Donetsk regional administration said two people were killed by unidentified gunmen in the city of Tores, and the region’s state railway company said that a railway line was blown up.
The authorities in Kiev say difficulties in conducting this weekend’s presidential election in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine won’t undermine its legitimacy.
In the Donetsk region, only about 25 percent of polling stations are “ready for the elections,” said Serhiy Tkachenko, leader of the Ukrainian Voters Committee, a nongovernmental organization.