Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted Friday that he is ready to deal with whoever wins Ukraine's presidential election. But his latest vow to facilitate a return of elected leadership in Kiev coincided with new attacks and incursions by pro-Russia gunmen, security and defense officials reported.
Putin, who earlier denounced the Ukrainian government's plans for a presidential election on Sunday as illegal and the result of a Western-backed coup, told a gathering of international business leaders in St. Petersburg that he doubted the vote would meet international standards "but let them hold it like that, at least," he said in apparent acceptance.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said late Friday that 20 insurgents and one Ukrainian soldier had been killed in a clash the previous day in the eastern Ukraine town of Rubizhne after an attack by about 500 pro-Russia militants, the Associated Press reported. It was unclear why word of the deadly battle would have taken more than 24 hours to reach Kiev, and why the report wasn't carried by any of Ukraine's main media.
Hundreds of foreign election observers have flooded into Ukraine in recent days to take part in international monitoring of the vote, which Kiev's interim leaders say they have sought in order to confirm that the election is free and fair, at least in those parts of the country under control of the central government.
Militants who Ukrainian and Western leaders accuse of trying to destabilize Ukraine and seize more territory for Russia in the eastern and southern regions of the country occupy government buildings, police stations and broadcast facilities in at least a dozen towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry officials told reporters in Kiev on Friday that 55,000 police and security forces would be standing guard to protect voters and observers, and that thousands of citizen volunteers had also pledged to be on hand for Sunday's vote in order to thwart any interference by the militants who have threatened election organizers and vowed to prevent balloting in the volatile areas they say they control.
Putin had been seen as encouraging the militants with his accusations that Kiev's interim leaders are fascists intent on repressing the Russian minority in the east and south of the country. That was the Kremlin leader's refrain when he sent Russian troops into Ukraine's Crimea territory in late February and proclaimed its reunion with Russia on March 18, two days after a dubious referendum held under military occupation reportedly found 97% of the peninsula residents in favor of Russian annexation.
The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on a few dozen Russian officials and businessmen considered complicit in the seizure of Crimea, which has been condemned by the United Nations and unrecognized by any country.
Putin's toned-down rhetoric about Ukraine's election in recent weeks may reflect concern that Western threats of more punishing sanctions could deliver a further blow to Russia's economy, already suffering from an investor panic that has reportedly sent about $200 billion in foreign capital fleeing the country. Russian stocks and the ruble have also taken double-digit hits to their values since the Crimean seizure.
Alternatively, the Kremlin leader may have decided that the separatist actions roiling eastern Ukraine have taken on a life of their own and that his open encouragement isn't needed to undermine Sunday's vote and Kiev's attempts to restore order in the country.
Kremlin officials have also seemed less resistant to dealing with a new Ukrainian president since confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, who has business interests in Russia, has opened up a commanding lead in the presidential race.
Putin blamed the West for the crisis in Ukraine, which he described at the business forum as "a full-scale civil war." He said former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally, had been forced out of office in February by "a coup backed by our American friends."
The situation in Ukraine is deteriorating, Putin said, according to Russia Today television, "as Kiev authorities continue their punitive operation in the east of the country."
Putin's occasionally conciliatory words at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual gathering boycotted by many U.S. and European companies this year, were bolstered by a similar toning down of overt opposition to the vote by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We didn't say that we definitely won't recognize the elections. We'll see how they proceed," Lavrov was quoted as telling a Defense Ministry security conference in Moscow.
In Kiev, officials of the Interior Ministry and the Security Service told journalists that the voting is expected to transpire peacefully in the vast majority of the 225 election districts across the country. Only in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk where gunmen hold government facilities are organizers concerned for the safety of voters who attempt to participate in the election denounced by the separatists, said Nikola Holomsha, an Interior Ministry deputy prosecutor general.
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, said government troops had intercepted two convoys of armed separatists and weapons caches they were attempting to bring in from Russia in the early hours of Friday.
"They are trying to stop the election and planning to attack polling places," Nalyvaichenko said, adding that Ukrainian authorities were doing everything necessary to prevent violence on election day.