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Putin talks about ‘statehood’ for eastern Ukraine

Seeming to be searching for the right word during a prerecorded television interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested yesterday that one of the issues to be resolved in the Ukrainian conflict is “statehood” for the eastern regions now controlled by separatists.

That’s a new idea, and if he meant it, it would raise the stakes considerably in the nearly 10-month-old Ukrainian crisis.

Earlier in the day, the European Union delayed imposing new economic sanctions on Russia but promised that if there is no policy change from Moscow within a week, more sanctions will be put in place.

The decision by the E.U. came as Ukraine’s military said coast guard vessels were attacked from a beachfront in the village of Bezimenne, in the first significant land-to-sea battle of the conflict. Witnesses said men in military fatigues descended on the beach in armored personnel carriers and shot at two coast guard vessels, hitting one. Bezimenne is close to Novoazovsk, a town that pro-Russian insurgents took over late last week, allegedly backed by Russian soldiers and artillery.

As Putin’s interview was being broadcast, Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, went into damage-control mode, saying that Putin was calling for dialogue, not sovereignty for the region, when he urged “substantive, meaningful negotiations” on questions concerning the “political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine.”

Putin has said repeatedly that he does not favor the breakup of Ukraine – though Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March – but wants greater autonomy for the east.

The term “statehood” suggests more than that, though, and if the word choice reflected a shift in Kremlin policy, it would ratchet up Moscow’s challenge not only to Kiev, but also to the United States and Western European nations trying to force Putin to back down.

Alternatively, it could suggest uncertainty on Putin’s part as to how he wants to push ahead on Ukraine.

“The president was talking about inclusive talks,” Peskov said of the interview, in which Putin also called for an end to hostilities before winter and criticized European leaders for supporting Kiev’s military campaigns against pro-Russian separatists.

Months ago, separatists backed by Russia declared independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, but Moscow has until now refrained from recognizing them.

Yet Western leaders believe that Russia has designs on eastern Ukraine. And even as the European Union warned Russia on Sunday that, unless it backs off, it should expect to be slapped with new, stiffer economic sanctions in less than a week, an increasing number of voices called for more drastic steps.

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