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Turnaround, or a tactical move by Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone an independence referendum planned for May 11. The government in Kyiv has responded with cautious skepticism.

It sounds like a sensation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone an independence referendum planned for May 11. Putin made hsi remarks at a press conference with Didier Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in Moscow on Wednesday (07.05.2014). Putin, however, added a caveat, saying that Kyiv had to end its military operation against the separatists. He also invited both sides to take part in a dialogue.

The leaders of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People's Republic” responded immediately. The Russian news agency “Interfax” quoted a representative of the separatist group who said it was impossible to postpone the referendum. A decision was expected on Thursday (08.05.2014).

Separatists: May 11 is not possible

Putin's surprising request came just a few hours after the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU published an intercepted phone call between Dmitri Boizov, a representative of the separatists, and the leader of the right-wing movement “Russian National Unity”, Alexander Barkashov. “I am canceling the referendum on May 11, we can't manage it,” said Bojzov in the phone call. The reason for this is that the Ukrainian army outnumbers the pro-Russian forces in Donetsk.

A man leaves his car while soldier and tanks are on the road
(Foto: Baz Ratner/REUTERS)

Ukrainian troops have surrounded the separatist stronghold of Slovyansk

For weeks, Kyiv has been moving against armed pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and special police units have surrounded the city of Slovyansk, considered a stronghold of the separatists, in the last few days.

Yatsenyuk about Putin's offer: “hot air”

The Ukrainian interim government responded skeptically to Putin's recent offer. Prime Minister Yatsennyuk called it just “hot air”. “There was never a referendum planned for May 11 in Ukraine,” he said after a government meeting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

But in a surprise move on the same day, arrested separatist leader Pavel Gubarev was exchanged for three Ukrainian police officers. The self-proclaimed “People's Governor of Donetsk” had been in custody since the beginning of March.

Kyiv views the announced independence vote in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as illegal. The law only allows a referendum in the entire country and no regional referendums, according to the government's position.

Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Turchynov recently admitted that his forces had lost control over large parts of these eastern regions. The referendum is about the independence of two provinces, the former representative to the Ukrainian parliament, Oleg Zarjov, told Russian TV. He added that other regions of eastern Ukraine and southern Ukraine also wanted to hold such a referendum. Then, a new state, called “New Russia”, will emerge, according to the politician.

Kyiv under pressure

Gerhard Mangott 
(Foto: Celia di Pauli)

Mangott sees Putin trying to put pressure on Kyiv

Western experts have assessed Putin's statement with cautious optimism. “There has obviously been a turnaround in Moscow,” said Hans Schröder, a Russia expert who until recently worked for the German Institute for Security and International Affairs in Berlin, in an interview with DW. Putin has now also responded to demands “to set up a roundtable for the entire Ukraine”. But Schröder believes that it is only a tactical move by the Kremlin, which wants to maintain control of the situation in Ukraine. Now, it depends on the Ukrainian government's response if there is to be a de-escalation.

Gerhard Mangott from the University of Innsbruck in Austria has expressed a similar view. Putin has now demonstrated that he is willing to make concessions and is “putting the other side under pressure,” he told DW.

But behind this apparent willingness to make concessions is the pressure coming from the West. “Putin is trying to take the wind out of the sails of those who want to enforce harsh sanctions,” said Mangott. The US recently threatened Russia that it would intensify sanctions if Moscow did not contribute toward de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine.

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