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AAA  Aug. 31, 2014 8:17 PM ET
Putin demands Kiev open 'statehood' talks with eastern Ukraine
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (MCT)
McClatchy/Tribune - MCT Information Services
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Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded Sunday that the Ukrainian government cease battling separatists in the country’s east and immediately begin negotiations on the breakaway region’s “statehood,” according to Russian news accounts of his remarks.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later clarified that Putin didn’t mean to imply that the eastern Ukrainian territory under separatist control would become part of Russia, but that its status within Ukraine had to be revised to give the Russian-speaking region the power to protect its rights and interests.

Still, Putin’s call for the Kiev government to negotiate with pro-Russia insurgents as equals corresponded with the apparent strategy he has followed since the violence began five months ago: Help the separatists take territory and force the Ukrainian government to grant the region virtual independence to align with Russia instead of the West.

In an interview with state-run Channel One television, Putin denounced the Ukrainian military campaign to recover separatist-held territory in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were seized in March and April, after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on March 18. The Kremlin and the separatists have lately branded the seized territory “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia,” a term that harks back to pre-revolutionary glory days of the Russian empire.

Putin said that anyone who believed peace talks are in the offing as Ukrainian politicians launch campaigns for an Oct. 26 parliamentary election and while government troops are attacking civilian communities in separatist-held regions is “a prisoner to illusions,” Itar-Tass news agency reported.

“We must immediately commence substantive talks and not only on technical issues, but also on the political organization of society and the statehood status of southeast Ukraine in order to serve the interests of people living there,” he said.

Peskov said Putin’s reference to statehood was meant in the context of the broader autonomy that has been discussed for months with the Kiev leadership as it struggles to allay fears in the Russian-speaking areas that their cultural and linguistic rights are in danger.

Only the Ukrainian government can grant the eastern regions the necessary autonomy, Peskov said.

“It’s not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but an internal Ukrainian conflict,” he said.

The Kremlin spokesman’s intercession to correct the “misinterpretation” of Putin’s remarks underscored how the Russian leadership has dealt with the separatist rebellion in the east differently from its outright seizure of Crimea, where the majority of the 2 million population is ethnic Russian. Moscow would have a much more difficult fight to annex even the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, where most of the 6.5 million residents are not Russian and pre-conflict polls showed broad support for staying within Ukraine.

The autonomy that Russian diplomats have discussed in international forums would grant regional governments in Ukraine the authority to determine their own trade agreements and foreign relations, giving the Kremlin de facto control over territory that would link the Russian mainland with Crimea. The Black Sea peninsula is home to Russia’s main naval fleet as well as commercial maritime facilities and historic coastal resorts.

The regions between Russia’s Rostov area and Crimea are also home to mines, factories and foundries that produce vital components for the Russian military.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed during his inauguration speech on June 7 that Ukrainian lawmakers — after new elections — weigh constitutional amendments to give more control to the disparate regions over their finances and the status of languages. But his vision of autonomy appears to differ sharply from that of the Kremlin and the separatist rebels Moscow is accused of arming and instigating.

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