Putin promises to respect Ukraine’s election

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin
pledged Friday that Russia will respect the results of Ukraine’s
presidential election, a strong indication the Kremlin wants to cool
down the crisis. But new violence and rebel vows to block the balloting
made prospects for peace appear distant.
New clashes were reported
between pro-Russia separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine
as Kiev continued an offensive to try to halt the uprising.
Associated
Press reporters saw two dead Ukrainian soldiers near the village of
Karlivka, and another body near a rebel checkpoint, both in the Donetsk
region. A rebel leader said 16 more people died Friday in fighting there
— 10 soldiers, four rebels and two civilians — but there was no
immediate way to verify his statement.
In Kiev, the Defense
Ministry said 20 insurgents were killed in an attack on a convoy of
government troops Thursday by about 500 rebels, the largest insurgent
assault yet reported. The clash could not be independently confirmed and
it was unclear why such a large attack in a populated region would have
gone unreported for more than a day. The ministry also said one soldier
was killed Friday near the same area.
On Thursday, 16 troops were killed near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk in the deadliest raid yet on
Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine’s
caretaker president urged all voters to take part in Sunday’s crucial
ballot to "cement the foundation of our nation." Yet it was uncertain
whether any voting could take place in the east, where rebels who
declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent have vowed to block
what they call an election for the leader of a foreign country.
Authorities
in Kiev had hoped that a new president would unify the divided nation,
whose western regions look toward Europe and the east has strong
traditional ties to Russia. But they have now acknowledged it will be
impossible to hold the vote in some areas in the east — especially in
Donetsk and Luhansk. Election workers and activists say gunmen there
have threatened them and seized their voting rolls and stamps.
Kiev
and Western countries allege Russia is fomenting the unrest, possibly
with the aim of justifying an invasion. Russia denies it, but it is
showing signs of wanting the crisis to settle down. Moscow has been hit
by U.S. and European sanctions after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in
March.
Putin told an international economic forum Friday that
Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" in the election
and will work with the new leadership. Since Ukraine’s pro-Russia
President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February following months of
protests, Moscow has denounced the interim authorities as a junta.
Russian
recognition of the election winner — which may require a runoff June 15
if no candidate gets an absolute majority Sunday — would be an
important step toward resolving the crisis. Putin also made it clear,
however, that Russia will continue to push for Kiev to end its
offensive.
Markets rallied and the ruble surged in value against
the dollar as the CEOs and economic experts at the forum praised Putin’s
efforts to defuse the tensions.
Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of
the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank, said
Putin’s comments reflected a desire to avoid another round of Western
sanctions. He added, however, that Russia’s relations with Ukraine will
be unlikely to normalize anytime soon.
Twenty-one candidates are
competing to become Ukraine’s next leader. Polls show billionaire
candy-maker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead but falling short of
the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. His nearest
challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the divisive former prime minister who
is trailing by a significant margin.
Most polls predict a Poroshenko victory in a runoff.
Ukraine’s
ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, estimated that more
than 60 polling stations will be operating in Donetsk and about 50
percent of the stations in Luhansk will be ready, although international
observers might not be at all stations in those areas because of
security concerns.
"We expect a huge participation in all the regions, more than 70 percent," he said.
Putin
blamed the crisis on what he described as "snobbery" by the West for
supporting the anti-Yanukovych protests and the interim government. He
said the West is reluctant to listen to Russia’s economic and security
concerns regarding Ukraine. Moscow fears Ukraine will seek NATO
membership and that closer economic ties with the European Union could
undermine trade with Ukraine.
The West "supported the coup and
plunged the country into chaos, and now they try to blame us for that
and have us clean up their mess," Putin added.
He also alleged that by pressing the EU to impose stronger sanctions against Russia, the U.S. was trying
to weaken a competitor.
"Maybe
the Americans, who are quite shrewd, want to win a competitive edge
over Europe by insisting on introducing sanctions against Russia?" he
asked.
On a more positive note, he hoped that "common sense will
push our partners in the United States and Europe toward continuing
cooperation with Russia."
Sergeyev said Putin’s comments were "good signs," but "we trust deeds, not words."

When
White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether he believed Putin’s
comments, he replied: "We’ll have to see whether in fact Russia does
recognize and take steps to engage with the Ukrainian government and the
victor of the presidential election."
U.S. State Department
spokeswoman Marie Harf said Russian officials "need to call on the
separatists that they have influence with to not try to disrupt the
election."
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not running, emphasized the importance of the
balloting.
"Today,
we are building a new European country, the foundation of which was
laid by millions of Ukrainians who proved that they are capable of
defending their own choice and their country," Turchynov said. "We will
never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, (and) turn
our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."
___
Leonard
reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Nebi Qena in Karlivka, Alexander
Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Vladimir
Isachenkov in Moscow, Cara Anna at the United Nations and Julie Pace in
Washington contributed to this report.