MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin called on Ukraine on Sunday to begin talks on “the statehood” of that country’s rebellious southeast, a vague and provocative turn of phrase used by Putin as he demanded that the Ukrainian government negotiate directly with pro-Russian separatists.
Western governments have accused Russia of backing the separatists with arms and fighters and of sending Russian troops to lead a counteroffensive in Ukraine during the past week that threatened Mariupol, an important port city, and left thousands of government troops encircled.
“We must immediately begin substantive, meaningful negotiations, not on technical questions, but about the political organization of society and the statehood of Ukraine’s southeast for the unconditional securing of the legal interests of the people who live there,” Putin said.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Putin was not calling for independence for eastern Ukraine. Rather, he said, the Russian leader was seeking inclusive negotiations that would provide greater autonomy for the country’s southeast as it remained a part of the country.
Hours after Putin spoke, Ukraine said a border guard vessel operating in the Azov Sea was attacked by land-based forces, the Associated Press reported. Pro-Russian rebels have recently opened a new offensive along the seacoast, but this attack was apparently the first incident at sea in the fighting.
Oleksiy Dmitrashkovsky, a Ukrainian military spokesman, announced the attack but had no further information, including how many people were aboard the boat.
There has been heightened concern in Ukraine that the rebels are trying to seize a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.
The self-proclaimed independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, which held haphazard, self-organized referendums on independence in May, have repeatedly requested Russian recognition, protection, and annexation. Although the Kremlin annexed Crimea, it has for months avoided formally recognizing the separatist states. Putin spoke Sunday on a televised news program in Moscow as European leaders vowed at a summit meeting in Brussels to toughen economic sanctions against Russia by the end of the week if the conflict in Ukraine continued to escalate.
In the interview, Putin veered between veiled threats and demands for negotiations to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. He said that country should cease hostilities immediately and renew its supplies of natural gas, which are piped in from Russia, to survive the coming winter.
“I think that nobody thinks of that anymore, except Russia,” Putin said of the winter. “There are ways of helping resolve the issue. First, to immediately stop hostilities and start restoring the necessary infrastructure. To start replenishing reserves, conducting the necessary repair operations and preparing for the cold season.”
Putin, however, gave rare praise to President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine after a meeting with him in Minsk, Belarus, calling Poroshenko “a partner with whom dialogue can be conducted.” Earlier, Putin toughened his rhetoric on Ukraine, making a direct address on the Kremlin’s website to “the militias of Novorossiya,” or New Russia, a controversial phrase for the region, including the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, once controlled by the Russian empire.