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Putin softens tone on Ukraine

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin, faced with rising violence in southeastern Ukraine that threatened to draw in the Russian army at great cost and prompt severe new Western economic sanctions, pressed pause on Wednesday in what had started to look like an inevitable march toward war.

But it remained unclear to analysts and political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic whether he was truly reversing course on Ukraine or if this was just another of his judo-inspired feints.

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Using a far less ominous tone than in previous remarks about Ukraine, Putin said at a news conference at the Kremlin that Russia had withdrawn the troops from along the Ukraine border, and that he had asked separatists to drop plans for a referendum on sovereignty this Sunday. Russia would even accept Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25, he said, if demands for autonomy from the country’s east were recognized.

Putin said Russia wanted to spur mediation efforts spearheaded by the Europeans. He said that he did not know whether talks between the warring sides in Ukraine were “realistic,” but that he was determined to give them a chance, in particular a suggestion from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany that the various factions engage in a round-table discussion.

“I simply believe that if we want to find a long-term solution to the crisis in Ukraine, open, honest and equal dialogue is the only possible option,” he said.

While Western governments welcomed Putin’s apparent about-face, there was also abundant skepticism, based in part on his record in Crimea. Putin repeatedly denied that Russia’s soldiers were involved in the region, only to admit later that they were.

A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said that while the United States would welcome a Russian military pullback, “there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.” NATO officials confirmed that Wednesday, saying they saw no troop movements.

Senior British officials also reacted warily to Putin’s announcement, noting that he had once before announced a sizable troop withdrawal from the border, in a phone call with Merkel, but moved only one battalion a modest distance.

Nevertheless, British officials regarded Putin’s comments as positive. They suggested that he wants to avoid a larger economic confrontation with the United States and the European Union, and that some of the concerns of Russian businessmen may finally be getting through to the tight circle around Putin.

While the world was caught off guard by Putin’s sudden peace offensive, analysts in Moscow cited several robust military, economic, and political reasons he might be inclined to switch tracks.

First, there has been an increasing sense here, as elsewhere, that conditions in Ukraine were rapidly approaching the situation in Yugoslavia in 1991, when the former Soviet satellite broke into pieces. The violence among various factions was creating situations on the ground, they said, that nobody could predict or manage.

The other reasons follow a certain logic. Putin wants to shape Ukraine’s future, but an invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army would be wildly expensive, bloody, and unpredictable. Even a nominally successful invasion could breed an insurgency in the east by pro-Ukrainian militants, while the partition of the country would stick Russia with a failed state in southeast Ukraine that would take tens of billions to restructure.

It would also create an implacably anti-Russian and pro-European state in western Ukraine that would most likely join NATO as fast as it could.

And an invasion would almost certainly galvanize the EU into joining the United States in imposing much tougher sanctions that might target entire sections of the Russian economy, like banking, energy, or steel.

Analysts suggested that if eastern Ukraine were to vote in the referendum Sunday to join Russia, or for independence, or if they demanded Russian protection in some orchestrated way, Putin would be forced to react, given his past statements about Russia’s responsibility to ensure the safety of ethnic Russians beyond its borders.

“The decision was taken not to increase Russian involvement in Ukraine, and not to increase the chances of major violence there,” said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst and a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.

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