UPDATE (3:55 PM EST): White House responds to Putin remarks with skepticism, new sanctions
Following remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the day indicating he had ordered his troops away from the Ukraine border, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters, "To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place." Adding, "We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal."
The State Department echoed the White House's remarks. Spokesperson Jen Psaki, as quoted by Guardian reporter Paul Lewis, said that Russia should “use its influence” to ensure the May 25 election proceed peacefully. “It is a helpful step, but again there is far more that President Putin and the Russians can do to de-escalate the situation and ensure safe elections.”
Following these comments, as the Guardian summarizes, other media outlets report the introduction of new economic sanctions by the White House against Russia on Wednesday:
The White House will remove Russia from a program offering favorable trade rates, meaning certain Russian goods are "now subject to non-preferential import duty rates" ABC's Kirit Radia reports. President Obama told Congress he plans to remove Russia from the program called the Generalized System of Preferences, according to Reuters.
Russia is "sufficiently advanced economically" and no longer needs the special treatment, the White House said. … "Russia's actions regarding Ukraine, while not directly related to the President's decision regarding Russia's eligibility for GSP benefits, make it particularly appropriate to take this step now," Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an email.
Additionally, the Kremlin has now released a complete English translation of the comments Putin made during his morning meeting with Swiss President and OSCE head Didier Burkhalter, available here.
In public statements on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin announced he will redeploy Russian troops away from the Ukraine border as a way to calm tensions in the region and has asked Ukrainians in the east who opposed the interim government in Kiev to at least postpone local referendum votes they've called for this Sunday.
Directly addressing the repeated claim by the U.S. and others that the presence of Russian troops near the border has been a destabilizing issue, Putin said: "We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds."
Putin's remarks came in a meeting in Moscow with Swiss president, Didier Burkhalter, who is also the current chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the group that many see as key to diplomatic efforts in Ukraine.
Regarding the desire of many in eastern Ukraine to hold referendum votes on the future of their political status relative to the new Kiev goverment—which they see as illegitimate—Putin said: "We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11."
Putin said that the national vote backed by Kiev, scheduled for May 25, is a "step in the right direction" but cautioned that without certain safeguards to protect national unity such a vote could do more harm than good.
“We think the most important thing now is to launch direct dialogue, genuine, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine,” Putin said. “We all want the crisis to end as soon as possible, and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine no matter where they live."
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As of midday Wednesday, neither the White House nor State Department had responded to Putin's latest comments.
Early reports from the city of Donetsk—which has been declared an independent republic by those opposed to Kiev's rule—showed mixed reactions to the news, as some in leadership seemed willing to accept at least a mild version of Putin's request while others expressed anger for what they perceived as a withdrawal of Russia's support for their cause.
Shortly after Putin's comments, Moscow Times reporter Ivan Nechepurenko tweeted:
— Ivan Nechepurenko (@INechepurenko) May 7, 2014
Received less well by others, the Guardian spoke with 58-year-old Natalia Medvedenko, also in Donetsk, who said: "So Russia has abandoned us as well. Well we will just have to fight the fascists on our own. But I still don't quite believe it."
Accusations by the U.S. and its European allies that Russia has been secretly pulling all the strings in eastern Ukraine have been repeatedly rebuffed by facts on the ground. Though its clear that Russian influence does exist, it remains unclear if the internal Ukrainian tensions—which have become increasingly violent—can be ameliorated at this point by political statements from either Moscow or Washington.
However, for many progressive-minded observers, it is only high-level and mature diplomacy that can peacefully end the crisis in Ukraine. For those individuals, Putin's gesture may come as a welcome development.
Writing for Common Dreams on Tuesday, Floyd Rudmin, a professor at the University of Tromsø in Norway, argued that what's imperative in Ukraine is that at "some point soon, reality needs to become the priority. No more name-calling. No more blaming. If there are any adults in the room, they need to stand up."
Independent journalist Robert Parry, who has covered the events closely, says the question for President Obama and other U.S. officials is whether they can drop their continued demonization of Putin's stance on Ukraine "and see the world through the eyes of the ethnic Russians in Donetsk as well as the pro-European youth in Kiev – recognizing the legitimate concerns and the understandable fears of both."
And Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, at the beginning of the week wrote that the only way to peace in Ukraine is for the key parties, both inside and outside of Ukraine, to reject the idea that escalations of violence are the only inevitability:
Contrary to what is said in much of the Western media, most of Russia’s allies in eastern Ukraine are not separatists. Rather, what many in the Donbas fear is that a government in Kiev—one that is either unelected or elected by a small majority, and which is under the sway of extreme nationalist demonstrators—will be able to decide their fate unilaterally. Thus, they are deeply opposed to the interim government in Kiev, but many of them continue to envision being a part of Ukraine in which they would have greater autonomy and recognition of regional rights and interests, rather than full independence. Until now, every opinion poll and election in the east has also suggested this.
But once a few hundred people have been killed, this reasonable position will quickly be destroyed. To return power to a reasonable majority, the international community must put forward the outline of a constitutional settlement on which a majority of Ukrainians can agree. It is hopeless to expect that the opposing sides themselves will be able to abide by a compromise proposal on their own, without outside help. The question then is whether Russia, the US, the EU, and the various parties in Ukraine including Ukrainian government can reach agreement on the outlines of a federal constitution, which the UN Secretary General could then put forward. This will be an immensely difficult task in the days and weeks ahead. But the alternative could be catastrophic.
As Rudmin concluded: "It will be difficult for Ukraine, EU, and Russia to escape horrific outcomes unless concerted actions are taken to change the course of events. People need to press their governments to start acting for the well-being of the region’s societies, and stop acting out historical bad habits and loyalty to alliances."
What Putin's remarks seem to reflect is at least some indications that Russia's arm remains outstretched for a diplomatic solution. It remains less clear, at this point, whether or not the United States is willing to follow suit.