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Putin might be making U-turn

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:33 p.m.
The girlfriend of Andrei Brazhevskiy, a pro-Russian activist, mourns during his funeral in Odessa, Ukraine, on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to take steps on Wednesday to pull Ukraine back from an escalating cycle of violence, declaring that Moscow has withdrawn its troops from the Ukrainian border, asking pro-Russian separatists to postpone a referendum on independence and indicating that he may be willing to recognize an election for Kiev's leaders.

“All of us are interested in settling this crisis, in settling it as soon as possible, accounting for the interests of all Ukrainian citizens irrespective of their place of residence,” Putin said, speaking in Moscow alongside Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who is leading negotiations as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Putin said Russian troops have been pulled back to their training grounds and locations for “regular exercises,” but he did not specify whether those locations were in areas near its border with Ukraine.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman declined to say where the troops were now positioned.

Putin's comments marked a significant shift in tone from the hard line that Russian officials have taken for months toward the acting government in Kiev, which assumed power when protesters made pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych flee in February.

But key questions remained over whether Putin's words would diffuse tensions.

NATO and Washington said they saw no indication of a Russian pullback, and the pro-Russia insurgents behind the referendum have not said whether they would go along with Putin's proposal.

According to Reuters, Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader in Donetsk, said, “We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it.''

Putin said that putting off the referendum about whether to establish independence from Kiev would help foster the “necessary conditions of dialogue” with the acting central government.

The Russian president described Ukraine's presidential election on May 25 as a step “in the right direction.” Kremlin officials had said they would consider the voting illegitimate if it were held in a climate of violence, while the West had warned against delay or disruption.

Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of “talking through his hat.”

Ukrainian officials have tried to regain control over the east, largely without success, as many fear fresh violence on May 9, a holiday that marks the Nazi surrender.

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