MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin says Russia has pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border.
Putin said Wednesday the troops have been pulled back to training grounds and locations for “regular exercises,” but didn’t specify whether those locations were in areas near Ukraine.
He also urged that a planned referendum Sunday on autonomy in southeast Ukraine be postponed.
In a Wednesday meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, Putin called on Ukraine’s military to halt all operations against pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings and police stations across at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian leader described Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election — slated for May 25 — as a move “in the right direction,” but repeated Russia’s long-held stance that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.
Roman Lyagin, chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic election commission, told The Associated Press that Putin’s remarks notwithstanding, plans for holding an autonomy referendum on May 11 remained unchanged.
In Berlin, a leading Ukrainian presidential candidate said he was prepared to negotiate a decentralization of power as pro-Russia insurgents in the east have demanded.
But Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, added that some insurgents in the eastern region understand only “the language of force.”
The U.S. and European nations have increased diplomatic efforts ahead of Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election as a pro-Russian insurgency continues to rock the country’s eastern regions.
Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was meeting with Putin to talk about Ukraine and the status of OSCE observers there. Seven international military observers with an OSCE mission were taken hostage by pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk for days and released only Saturday.
Russia and the West have expressed a desire for the OSCE to play a greater role in defusing the tensions in Ukraine.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, met with Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov on Wednesday after visiting Moscow a day earlier. British Foreign Secretary William Hague also arrived to speak with the nation’s leaders.
Speaking in a BBC interview, Hague lent his support to Ukraine’s May 25 election.
Ukrainians “cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country, in this instance Russia,” he said.