Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on the “statehood” of southern and eastern Ukraine, although his spokesman said this did not mean Moscow now endorsed rebel calls for independence for territory they have seized.
The Kremlin leader’s remarks, two days after a public appearance in which he compared the Kiev government with Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us”, came as Europe and the United States prepared possible further sanctions to halt what they say is direct Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Germany aired suspicions that Moscow might be trying to create a land corridor to supply Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in March, while the four-month conflict moved onto the sea for the first time on Sunday. The separatists said they had fired on a Ukrainian vessel in the Azov Sea using land-based artillery, and a military spokesman in Kyiv said a rescue operation was under way.
Talks should be held immediately “and not just on technical issues but on the political organisation of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine”, Putin said in an interview with Channel 1 state television.
Putin’s use of the word “statehood” was interpreted in Western media as implying backing for the separatist demand of independence, something Moscow has so far stopped short of publicly endorsing.
However, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no new endorsement from Moscow for their independence. Asked if Novorossiya, (“New Russia”), a term pro-Moscow rebels use for their territory, should still be part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement.”
Separatists have rallied behind the term “New Russia” since Putin first used it in a public appearance in April. Putin called it a tsarist-era term for land that now forms southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians consider the term deeply offensive and say it reveals Moscow’s imperial designs on their territory.
Moscow has long called for Kyiv to hold direct political talks with the rebels. Kiev says it is willing to have talks on more rights for the south and east, but will not talk directly to armed fighters it describes as “international terrorists” and Russian puppets that can only be reined in by Moscow.
The deputy leader of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Purgin, said he was due to participate in talks in the Belarus capital Minsk on Monday. Past talks by a “contact group” involving Moscow, Kyiv and the separatists have covered technical issues such as access to the crash site of a Malaysian airliner shot down in July, but not political questions.