MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to the conflict in Ukraine. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin made some conciliatory sounding statements. He called on the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendum on autonomy. That vote is currently scheduled for Sunday. Putin also said that Russian troops had withdrawn from the Ukrainian border and that Russia is ready for more talks on ways to resolve the crisis.
But that offer comes with conditions that would be very hard for the government in Kiev to accept. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins me from Moscow to talk about today's developments. And, Corey, let's start with that statement from President Putin that he has, in fact, pulled back Russian troops from the border with Ukraine. Is there any evidence that that's actually happened?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, no. apparently not. And, in fact, NATO officials have come out it said that it had seen no sign that Russian troops are moving back. But, you know, I've talked to military analysts who say that it doesn't really matter whether troops in a modern army are 10 kilometers away from the broader, or 100 kilometers, because, you know, they can cover those distances in a matter of a few hours. So it doesn't seem to matter much how far away those troops are, as long as they are in the region.
BLOCK: Well, what led up to President Putin making these remarks today?
FLINTOFF: Well, he had a meeting today with the Swiss president, Didier Burkhalter, and he's also the current head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia has said before that it wants the OSCE to stay involved in trying to mediate the crisis. Although you'll recall that there was a team of OSCE military observers taken prisoners for more than a week by pro-Russian militants in Slavyansk. A Russian mediator actually was involved in talks to get them safely released.
The most noteworthy thing that Putin said after the meeting was that the pro-Russian separatists in the east should post postpone the referendum that they're planning for Sunday. That is new, although it remains to be seen whether the separatists will comply.
BLOCK: Yeah, and Ukraine has presidential elections that are scheduled for May 25th, just a few weeks. Did Putin link that election with the planned referendum by separatists on Sunday?
FLINTOFF: He didn't explicitly link them. In fact, he said the presidential elections would be a step in the right direction. But he wants that delayed as well. He went on to say that those presidential elections wouldn't change anything if people in Ukraine don't understand how their rights will be guaranteed after the elections. And that's sort of code that goes back to something that Russia has been demanding all along.
They say that Ukraine should enact constitutional reform before it holds a presidential election. And by that, they mean that Ukraine should adopt a very loose form of federalism under which the provinces would be very high degree of autonomy. In fact, they'd actually be able to conduct foreign policy and trade policy with other countries.
Analysts I've talked, and both Russian and Western analysts, say that would leave the central government in Kiev so weak it wouldn't be effective. And it would basically guarantee that Ukraine couldn't ever join the European Union or NATO.
BLOCK: And, Corey, that sounds like that would be a total deal breaker for the government in Kiev.
FLINTOFF: Yes, it would especially be a deal breaker now, when Ukraine is already organizing the elections and politicians have been campaigning. Most politicians in Kiev have been dead-set against any kind of federalism anyway, unless it includes very strong powers for the central government.
BLOCK: So, in the end, Corey, do President Putin's words today reflect any kind of real breakthrough? Or is this empty talk?
FLINTOFF: You know, that's very hard to say. You know, it's worth noting that every time President Putin or his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have proposed talks and concessions, they've always included something that would be a poison pill for the government in Kiev. In this case, it's the call for constitutional reform before the presidential election.
Putin also called on Kiev to stop its military operation in eastern Ukraine. And from the point of view of Kiev, that's also a non-starter, because they're afraid that they would just be abandoning the eastern part of the country to these armed separatists, who'll just keep on seizing control of more towns there.
BLOCK: OK, NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Corey, thanks very much.
FLINTOFF: My pleasure, Melissa.
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