MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to take steps Wednesday to pull Ukraine back from an escalating cycle of violence, asking pro-Russian separatists in the country to postpone a Sunday referendum on independence and indicating that he may be willing to recognize a national election later this month.
The effort marked a significant shift in tone from the hard line that Putin and other top Russian officials have taken for months toward Ukraine's government in Kiev, which took power after pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February in the face of popular protests. But key questions remained over whether Putin's efforts would actually rein in violence, including whether Russia retained control over the armed separatists who have taken over cities across eastern Ukraine and whether his proposals were palatable to the Ukrainians.
"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 Switzerland's President Didier Burkhalter, who is leading negotiations as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Putin said that putting off the referendum about whether to establish independence from Kiev would help create the "necessary conditions of dialogue" with the central government.
Putin's statements came after a week of escalating violence as Ukrainian authorities attempted to regain control over the east, largely without success. Many Ukrainians fear fresh violence on Victory Day, the annual May 9 holiday that holds deep significance for Russians because it marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union during World War II.
Putin also expressed qualified support for Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, a vote aimed at legitimizing a new government that would replace the current interim administration. Kremlin officials had previously said they would consider the election illegitimate if it were held in a climate of violence, while the United States and its allies had warned against delay or disruption.
The Obama administration was muted in its response to Putin's remarks, and it emphasized the need for actions in addition to words.
"We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal" of Russian troops deployed along Ukraine's border, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place."
Ukraine had never recognized the planned referendum as legitimate, and officials in Kiev reacted dismissively to Putin's move. Even before Putin's request for a delay, the referendum's success had been in doubt, with each city organizing its own balloting and popular enthusiasm limited at best.
The separatists called the referendum to decide whether the eastern region of Ukraine, the country's industrial heartland, should declare independence and become the sovereign republic of Novorossiya, the czarist-era name for part of the area.
It was not immediately clear whether the separatists would heed Putin's request for a postponement. But 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."
Apart from the Sunday vote, the Kremlin has pushed for a version of federalization in Ukraine that would keep eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population, thoroughly within Russia's orbit. Ukrainian leaders in Kiev have said they would not agree to such a move, which would delegate authority over law enforcement and foreign policy to the country's regions.
Putin said that a presidential election would be "a movement in the right direction, but only if all citizens of Ukraine understand that their rights are guaranteed."
The Russian leader also said Wednesday that he had pulled back some forces from Ukraine's borders. But the claim was immediately contradicted by U.S. and NATO officials, who said they had "seen no change" in Russian troops in the region.
"We would know," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters. Senior Russian defense officials also said late last month that they were pulling troops back, but did not appear to do so, Western officials said.
Andriy Parubiy, who leads Ukraine's equivalent of the National Security Council, said that Putin's remarks should be seen as confirmation that the Kremlin has been stoking the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine all along. If Putin was making a concession, Parubiy said, it was because of the military campaign that Ukrainian forces have launched in recent days to regain control in the east.
"This is also evidence of the fact that the Ukrainian government is going in the right direction and successfully protecting its national interests," Parubiy said through an interpreter during an interview at his office in Kiev on Wednesday.
Parubiy said he had just met with local separatist leaders in the eastern regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, armed with a presidential decree of amnesty for those who lay down their arms. He said that both sides could negotiate a satisfactory solution on autonomy and other issues without Russia's interference.