Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to up the ante on his Ukraine rhetoric by calling for immediate talks on “statehood” for southeastern Ukraine. In an interview broadcast on Russian state television, Putin called for “substantive, meaningful negotiations, and not on technical issues and on the political organization of society and statehood in the southeast of Ukraine.” A Kremlin spokesman quickly denied that the words meant Moscow was officially endorsing independence for rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. But it hardly seems like a coincidental wording considering it comes after he compared Kiev leaders to Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us,” reports Reuters.
Use of the term “statehood” amounts to “a vague and provocative turn of phrase,” notes the New York Times. Although Putin has repeatedly said he does not favor breaking up Ukraine and only wants the east to get more autonomy, “the word ‘statehood’ suggests more than that, and if it reflects a major shift in Kremlin policy, it would be a direct challenge not only to Kiev but also to Western European nations and the United States, which have been trying to force Moscow to back down,” according to the Washington Post.
The words may ultimately amount to a big pressure tactic, writes the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg:
There is no doubt that Russia is determined to retain a degree of influence in Ukraine and to ensure, at the very least, that Ukraine never joins Nato. Moscow is equally determined to make sure the pro-Russian separatists avoid a military defeat.
Promoting “statehood” in the east is one way of increasing the pressure on Kiev to stop its military operation and start talks with the pro-Moscow militants—and with Russia itself.
If Kiev fails to do this, the Kremlin may well press for south-eastern Ukraine (or “Novorossiya” as Moscow increasingly refers to the region) to break away from Kiev.
Putin’s comments come as the European Union has warned it would impose new sanctions against Russia by the end of the week if the Ukraine conflict continued to escalate. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned Saturday at a EU meeting that his country could be “close to the point of no return” and a “full-scale war” could be imminent, reports the BBC.