Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly expressed support Sunday for Ukraine’s declaration of a cease-fire in its battle against pro-Russian separatists and called on both sides to negotiate a compromise.
Putin said such a compromise must guarantee the rights of the Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine, who must feel like they are “an integral part” of their own country.
Putin’s statement appeared to signal that he sees their future in Ukraine.
Separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions have declared independence and asked to join Russia. Moscow has rebuffed their appeals, but is seen by Ukraine and the West as actively supporting the insurgency.
Putin’s conciliatory words came as Russia began large-scale military exercises and after NATO accused Russia of moving troops back toward the Ukrainian border.
Putin appears determined to keep up the pressure to force the Kyiv government to give the eastern industrial regions more powers and to prevent Ukraine from moving too close to the European Union or NATO.
But he also wants to avoid more punishing sanctions from the U.S. and particularly from the European Union, whose leaders will meet Friday in Brussels, and therefore needs to be seen as co-operating with efforts to de-escalate the conflict.
The Kremlin initially dismissed the peace plan that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko laid out on Friday. But in a statement issued late Saturday, Putin said he welcomed the cease-fire and Poroshenko’s “intention to take other concrete steps to reach a peaceful settlement.”
As part of his plan, Poroshenko suggested a decentralization of power to give the regions more political authority. He also proposed new local and parliamentary elections, and measures to protect the language rights of Russian speakers in the east.
Putin was more specific on Sunday, when he spoke publicly following ceremonies commemorating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
“That President Poroshenko announced a truce is without a doubt an important part of a final settlement, without which no agreement can be reached, and there is no doubt that Russia will support this intention, but in the end the most important thing is a political process,” Putin said.
Putin discussed the cease-fire on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, Merkel’s office and the Kremlin said.
“After the Russian government too referred to the cease-fire in positive terms, the interlocutors emphasized the need for all sides to abide by it now and for a political dialogue to be put in motion,” Merkel’s office said in a statement. “Another topic of the conversation was the issue of securing the Ukrainian-Russian border.”
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden welcomed Ukraine’s unilateral cease-fire declaration in a telephone conversation with Poroshenko, but expressed concern that separatist leaders have refused to reciprocate, Biden’s office said in a statement.
In Kyiv, Poroshenko also addressed his nation on the day on which Ukrainians and Russians mourn the millions who died during World War II. He called for peace, but urged his compatriots to stand strong and united.
“It was so during the violent struggle against the Nazis and it should be the same now,” Poroshenko said. “Facing a real threat, we must unite even more and secure our historical choice, defend our right to live freely on our land.”