US, Ukraine dismiss change of tack by Putin

US, Ukraine dismiss change of tack by Putin
The head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Swiss President Didier Burkhalter (L), and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a press conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 7, 2014, after their meeting.

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin told rebels in Ukraine to halt plans for independence votes and said his troops have pulled back from the border, but his apparent change of heart received short shrift from Kiev and Washington.

Putin on Wednesday also hailed a planned May 25 presidential election in Ukraine - previously condemned by the Kremlin - as a "move in the right direction".

The surprise comments suggested a potential resolution of the conflict in Ukraine which has snowballed into Europe's worst standoff since the Cold War, as government troops battle to wrest back control of more than a dozen towns seized by the pro-Russia rebels.

Putin's new stance helped power rallies on financial markets in Moscow and New York. The United States and Europe have been preparing sanctions to hammer whole swathes of the Russian economy, which is teetering on recession, if the Ukraine presidential poll is scuppered.

But the White House and NATO said there was no sign of a Russian troop withdrawal, and Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of "talking through his hat" about the independence referendums, because they were illegitimate to begin with.

Putin ordered an estimated 40,000 troops to Ukraine's border two months ago, but said: "We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds." Putin told the separatists in Ukraine "to postpone the referendums planned for May 11 in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue".

One of the separatist leaders, Denis Pushilin, said shortly after Putin's comments that his proposal would be looked into on Thursday.

Putin made his declarations after meeting Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, current chief of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Russian president's spokesman said afterwards that, if Ukraine now halted its military offensive and started dialogue, "then this can lead Ukraine out of a situation that at this stage is growing only worse".

But speaking to reporters on Air Force One, White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said "to date" there has been "no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place".

Washington would "certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal", he added. "That's something that we have sought for quite some time."

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