Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday promised it would offer strong assistance to Ukraine to overcome its crisis, but emphasized that the ultimate responsibility for reducing tensions lies with Ukrainians rather than outsiders.
The comments in a statement came two days after top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union issued a statement calling for an array of actions including the disarming of militant groups and the freeing of public buildings taken over by insurgents.
Those terms quickly became a heated issue as pro-Russian armed groups that have seized police stations and other government buildings in eastern Ukraine said they wouldn’t vacate unless the country’s acting government resigned.
The insurgents say the Kiev authorities, who took power after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of protests, aim to suppress the country’s Russian-speakers. Eastern Ukraine, which was Yanukovych’s support base, and has a substantial Russian-speaking population.
Ukraine’s turmoil has sparked the most severe East-West tensions since the Cold War. Washington and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month following a referendum that overwhelmingly approved Crimean secession. Russia has positioned troops in regions bordering Ukraine and critics say Moscow is encouraging unrest in eastern Ukraine and seeking a pretext for a military incursion.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that deputy minister Grigory Karasin met with Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russia candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election that is to take place on May 25.
“The Russian side noted that the questions of resolving the internal political crisis should be decided by Ukrainians themselves in close cooperation with a special monitoring mission” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said a statement summarizing the meeting. “Russia is prepared to show the widest support in this.”
The statement did not specify what that support would be, and it was not clear what it can do or would be willing to do. Russia denies claims that it has agents in eastern Ukraine directing or encouraging the insurgents.
The emphasis on Ukrainians’ responsibility echoed a ministry statement a day earlier which said the first step should be the disarming of members of the ultranationalist Right Sector group, whose activists are occupying buildings in the capital Kiev.
Right Sector’s activists were key elements in the three months of protests that preceded Yanukovych’s fall.
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin says he sees no obstacles to improving relations with the West, which are fraught with tension over the Ukraine crisis.
In an interview on state television shown on Saturday, Mr. Putin was asked whether relations with the West would improve by the end of the year.
“This doesn’t depend on us, or not only on us. It depends on our partners,” Mr. Putin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
“I consider that there is nothing that would impede normalization and normal cooperation,” he said.
The United States and the European Union have accused Russia of encouraging recent unrest in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia insurgents are occupying government buildings and police stations.