MOSCOW — Russia has pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border, Vladimir Putin told diplomats today as he urged insurgents in southeastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendum Sunday on autonomy.
In a Moscow meeting with Swiss president Didier Burkhalter, Putin said the Russian troops have been pulled back to their training grounds and locations for “regular exercises,” but didn’t specify whether those locations were in areas near Ukraine.
A Defense Ministry spokesman declined to say where the troops were now positioned.
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.
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.
“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 federalization 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.