September 1 2014
Putin Seeks ‘Statehood’ Talks for SE Ukraine
By Jack Farchy in Moscow, Roman Olearchyk in Mariupol and Christian Oliver in Brussels
Vladimir Putin has called for talks on the “statehood” of southeast Ukraine, in a provocative comment that will heighten fears Moscow is seeking the partition of the country.
The comments by the Russian president are the latest escalation in rhetoric from the Kremlin and come as Europe prepares to impose tougher sanctions against Moscow. They follow an intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine that Kiev and western governments say is being fuelled by an inflow of Russian soldiers and equipment.
“We must immediately begin substantive, meaningful negotiations, not on technical questions but on questions of the political structure of society and of the statehood of southeast Ukraine in order to guarantee the legal interests of people who live there,” Mr Putin said in a television interview.
The use of the word “statehood”, while imprecise, is likely to antagonize Kiev.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman, sought to play down the remarks. He said Mr Putin had been calling for inclusive talks with the separatists to start as soon as possible, but that it was “absolutely wrong” to interpret his words as calling for independence for eastern Ukraine.
However, the escalation in the Ukraine conflict is likely to draw a western response this week. General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said the alliance would “take head on” the engagement of Russian troops in Ukraine at a summit in Wales starting on Thursday.
European leaders agreed at the weekend to prepare new sanctions against Moscow within a week.
In his TV interview, Mr Putin indirectly addressed allegations that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. “It must be taken into account that Russia cannot remain indifferent to the fact that people are being shot almost point-blank,” he said, before clarifying that he was referring to the Russian people, not the government.
Russia, which annexed Crimea following a disputed referendum in March, has been calling for the federalization of Ukraine since the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February. However, Moscow has stopped short of calling for the independence or annexation of eastern Ukraine.
Mr Peskov said Mr Putin’s words were a call for “negotiations within Ukraine, addressing the internal, Ukrainian structures which would take into account the interests of the eastern regions of the country”.
Late last week, Mr Putin made an address to “the militia of Novorossiya” – a politically loaded term that rebels and Russian nationalists use for areas of south and eastern Ukraine for which they seek independence. Mr Putin has only used the term publicly once before.
The EU will this week begin drawing up a comprehensive blacklist of people and companies involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
However, there is still disagreement over the extent to which sanctions should be strengthened. Although Britain, France and Germany want harder measures against the Russian financial and energy sectors by the end of the week, many eastern European countries fear that a trade war with Moscow could cripple their economies.
The EU summit came after Kiev and the west accused Russia of direct military incursions to help pro-Russian separatists launch a new front with Ukraine’s army. Separatists seized the town of Novoazovsk, which borders Russia in the country’s far south-eastern corner. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the conflict.
On a recent visit to Novoazovsk, the FT saw a handful of better-equipped soldiers, standing out from average rebel forces. They resembled the so-called “green men”, Russian soldiers without identifying insignias who appeared throughout Crimea earlier this year. However, none admitted to be being from Russia. Nato’s Gen Breedlove said “it’s clear Russian troops are engaged in eastern Ukraine”.
The capture of Novoazovsk threatens to reverse gains made by Ukraine’s army in past weeks towards encircling separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, their stronghold cities further north.