DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine scrambled on Wednesday to make sense of surprise remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin, after he called for a planned independence referendum to be postponed and said Russia had pulled back its troops from the border.
Andriy Porgin, a senior pro-Russian separatist leader in Donetsk who is helping to oversee the referendum, planned for May 11, said he didn't yet know what to make of Putin's comments and that the top brass would meet tonight to discuss their implications. "We can't ignore him," he said of Putin. He seemed to still be coming to grips with the statement. "I want to read it in context."
Putin said Wednesday, after a meeting with the president of Switzerland, who currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that dialogue with the authorities in Kiev was needed. "We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11 so as to create the necessary conditions for this dialogue," he said.
The comments came as a surprise. Russian officials have regularly referred to the new government in Kiev — put in power following the fall of the Russia-friendly government of Viktor Yanukovych in February — as Nazis and Fascists and have rejected their legitimacy.
Separatists in east Ukraine have been fighting attempts by the central government to rein them in. Early last month, one group announced the creation of a Donetsk People's Republic to govern the most restive region.
Porgin said separatists there were working hard to set up the vote, but it seemed that coordination was rather loose — groups in towns and cities are being told to self-organize their polls without top-down coordination from the Donetsk People's Republic. Asked what he expected of the vote, he put his arms up and shook his head. "It's the first time in 23 years that they have asked the people what they want."
He said if Putin wanted the vote delayed, it didn't mean it wouldn't happen at all, but he did voice safety concerns. "Maybe it is not the right time for a referendum right now because we're almost on the eve of war. ... The situation is really tense right now. And the maximum tension will be on the 9th of May, just before the referendum. And the referendum could really blow up the situation."
Alexander Kishinets, "war commissioner" of the People's Republic, was taken aback by Putin's statement. "I don't know exactly why Putin is talking like this because in my opinion, the referendum has to be done as soon as possible because we can use it to legitimize our power and defend it politically from pressure." He also thought a referendum might free up the local security forces to disobey Kiev's orders for crackdowns.
Bewilderment was widespread. Asked about Putin's comments, one young pro-Russian activist said: "It's difficult for me to comment. I'm confused."
Putin also said Wednesday that Russia had pulled back its 40,000 troops from the border with Ukraine, where they were on war exercises. There was as yet no proof, however. Putin also called for a May 25 presidential election, following the toppling of Yanukovych, to go ahead.