KIEV, Ukraine — After two months of piling pressure on the Ukrainian government, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday appeared to strike a conciliatory tone, calling on pro-Russia separatists to cancel a referendum on autonomy they’d set for Sunday and insisting that Russian troops have pulled away from Ukraine’s eastern border.
“We have been told that our troops by the Ukrainian border are a concern — we have withdrawn them,” Putin said. “They are now not near the border, but at locations where they conduct regular drills at ranges.”
After months of accusations that Putin was encouraging armed insurrection in the east, Ukrainians reacted with suspicion. In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was “no evidence” that Putin had moved troops away from the border. Others pointed out that it was not the first time in recent weeks that Putin has made such a claim.
“We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of Russian military forces from the border,” Earnest said. “That’s something that we have sought for quite some time.”
Putin also appeared to distance himself from separatists in eastern Ukraine after speaking with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose teams of advisers were held hostage for days in the east. Putin called for the separatists in Donestsk to postpone a Sunday referendum on forming an independent state, in order to ease pressure enough to allow dialogue to work.
“We are calling for southeast Ukraine representatives, supporters of federalization of the country, to postpone the May 11 referendum to create the necessary conditions for dialogue,” he said.
Still, Putin shouldered none of the blame for what’s taken place in recent months. “Russia believes that the crisis, which originated in Ukraine and is now actively developing in accordance with the worst-case scenario, is to be blamed on those who organized the coup in Kiev . . . and still do not care to disarm the right-wing and nationalist elements,” he said, referring to the demonstrations that resulted in the flight of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
White House spokesman Earnest said the administration repeatedly has called the referendum illegitimate and illegal.
“So we don’t believe that this referendum should just be postponed, we believe it should be canceled,” Earnest said.
He added: “What we would also like to see is the Russian government live up to the commitments that they made in Geneva to use their influence with pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine to encourage them to lay down their arms and vacate the buildings that they have taken over. . . . There is an opportunity for Russia to contribute positively to the environment in Ukraine. Thus far, they have not done that.”
Putin also seemed to soften his stance of the coming May 25 Ukrainian elections. Previously, he has insisted the vote would be unconstitutional, since in his opinion Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s duly elected president. On Wednesday, he said the upcoming vote was “a step in the right direction.”
He cautioned, however, that “it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place.”
Putin’s comments came as President Barack Obama told Congress that he plans to withdraw Russia’s eligibility for certain trade benefits because it “no longer warrants preferential treatment reserved for less advanced developing countries.”
Russia is the ninth biggest beneficiary of the program that helps developing countries, reaping $296 million in 2013 from preferential duty rates.
While not related, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine makes it “particularly appropriate to take this step now,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. She said Russia qualified to be pulled out of the program after it was classified by the World Bank as a “high income” country last year — but that it wouldn’t have been effective until Jan. 1, 2016.
U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman said the European Union and Canada also removed Russia from similar programs. Affected are Russian exports of minerals and metals, Froman’s office said. The average duty for Russian goods is about 3 percent.
Schofield reported from Kiev, Clark from Washington. Kevin G. Hall contributed from Washington.