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May 26, 2017

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Putin tells Ukraine separatists to postpone secession polls

MOSCOW--Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday urged pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a series of disputed referendums planned for this weekend on declaring greater autonomy or outright independence from Kiev.

The Kremlin chief also said Russia had pulled troops back from the Ukraine border and softened his criticism of plans by Ukraine's interim leaders to stage a snap presidential poll on May 25, describing it as a "step in the right direction".

Putin told visiting Swiss president and current OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter that he was in favour of postponing the secession referendums planned for Sunday in order to give talks between separatists and Kiev leaders a chance.

"We ask the representatives of the southeast to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue," Putin said.

Pro-Russian militants who have seized government buildings in eastern regions such as Donetsk and Lugansk had announced plans to stage polls on secession from Kiev following the protest-led ouster in February of a Kremlin-backed regime.

On Wednesday, Putin said: "I would like to stress that the presidential elections planned in Kiev, while they are a move in the right direction, will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held."

Border Pull-back

NATO had previously estimated that the Kremlin had massed up to 40,000 troops along Ukraine's eastern border as part of wide-scale drills that had prompted Western fears of an imminent Russia invasion reminiscent of its March seizure of Crimea.

Putin acknowledged Western concerns and said in his first such public comments that Russia had — at a point he failed to specify — already pulled back its troops.

"We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border," said Putin.

"We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds," he said.

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