Russian President Vladimir Putin has described Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election as a move “in the right direction”. He was speaking after a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, in which Burkhalter presented Putin with a peace plan.
Putin said his talk with Burkhalter, visiting Moscow in his capacity as chairman-in-office for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), had encouraged him that "our approaches [to Ukraine] coincide".
Russia has pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border, Vladimir Putin said as he urged militant separatists in southeastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendum Sunday on autonomy.
"We believe that the most important thing is to create direct, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine," Putin said. "Because of this, we ask that representatives of southeast Ukraine, supporters of federalisation in the country, postpone the May 11 referendum in order to create the necessary conditions for such a dialogue."
Despite Putin's comments, pro-Russia militants calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic said they would still hold the referendum on Sunday.
Burkhalter said he had presented Putin with a plan for the de-escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, based on dialogue, an end to violence, elections and disarmament. “There are no grounds for a conflict between East and West,” he said.
Putin also called on Ukraine's military to halt all operations against pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings and police stations in at least a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine launched a government offensive late last week to take back buildings and towns under control of the insurgents. At least 35 people, including many rebels, have died in that offensive, the government said.
Many had feared that Sunday's vote on more autonomy would be a flashpoint for further violence between the rebels and Ukrainian troops in the east. Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March after residents held a vote and overwhelmingly backed secession.
The Russian leader still repeated Russia's long-held stance that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.
Russia and the West have expressed a desire for the OSCE to play a greater role in defusing the tensions in Ukraine.
The United States and European nations have increased diplomatic efforts ahead of the presidential election on May 25 as the insurgency makes the east of the country increasingly unsafe for journalists and international observers.
Seven international military observers with an OSCE mission were taken hostage by pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Slovyansk on April 25 and held until May 3.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs, met with Ukraine's acting president Oleksandr Turchynov on Wednesday after visiting Moscow a day earlier. British Foreign Secretary William Hague also arrived to speak with the nation's leaders.
Speaking in a BBC interview, Hague lent his support to Ukraine's presidential election.
Ukrainians "cannot be bullied out of having their elections by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country, in this instance Russia," he said.
swissinfo.ch and agencies