The future of rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine will be decided by the people who live there, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
A peace agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, to end the yearlong conflict offers a chance to rebuild relations between the government in Kiev and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Putin said.
“In the end, of course, the right to have the final word on who, how and with whom they want to live, under what conditions, should belong to the people living on those territories,” Putin said at his annual televised call-in program in Moscow on Thursday. “To a great extent, this will depend on the flexibility and the political wisdom of the Kiev leadership.”
Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union accuse Russia of stoking the crisis by sending troops and weapons to aid the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin rejects the allegation and accuses the government in Kiev of waging war on its own citizens in a conflict that has killed at least 6,000 people. A fragile cease-fire has largely been observed since it was agreed on at the Minsk negotiations in February between Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March last year. His comment on Thursday was in response to a question from a refugee from Donbas who said residents wanted to know about the prospects for Donetsk and Luhansk to detach themselves from Ukraine and form ‘Novorossiya,’’ a term for the area harking back to the Russian imperial era.
Putin is keeping “all options open,” Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said by phone on Thursday. “It doesn’t mean he’s inspiring the separatists to unite with Russia, but he keeps the door open.”
Ukraine’s authorities are “cutting off Donbas by their own hand,” Putin said in response to another question asking whether it was true that Poroshenko had suggested that Russia take over the rebel-held areas. No such offer was made, he said.
Russia won’t interfere in the conflict and wants peace on its borders, Putin said. “I don’t make a difference between Ukrainians and Russians,” who are the same people, he said.
People living in Donbas are defending their rights under “full blockade” from Ukraine, and Poroshenko has made many mistakes, Putin said. “We don’t choose our partners. In our work, we shouldn’t be ruled by sympathies and antipathies,” he said.
Poroshenko had a chance to resolve the crisis peacefully but chose to take military action against Russia’s advice, Putin said. The military campaign is leading to tragedy for the Ukrainian army, he said.
Russian troops aren’t in Ukraine, he said. The only way to resolve the crisis is for everyone to observe the terms of the Minsk peace agreement.