By Justin Sink - 05/07/14 11:05 AM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he had withdrawn troops from the border with Ukraine and called on pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine to delay a referendum on autonomy.
Putin’s comments, made during a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, could signal a desire by Moscow to deescalate tensions in Ukraine, amid threats of broad sectoral sanctions from the United States and Europe.
An estimated 40,000 Russian troops had amassed across the border from Ukraine, stoking fears throughout Europe that Moscow could stage an invasion. The U.S. and NATO repeatedly called on Russia to end the troop exercises, saying they were destabilizing to the region.
Putin also called Ukraine’s upcoming May 25 presidential elections a move "in the right direction.” He called on pro-Russian separatists to hold off on a May 11 autonomy referendum that has been denounced by the government in Kiev.
Separatist leaders said they would consider Putin's request at an assembly meeting on Thursday.
“Tomorrow we will discuss that at the people’s assembly,” Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatist movement, told the wire service. “We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it.”
The moves come amid complaints from President Obama and other world leaders that Russia has done little to implement an agreement struck last month in Geneva to deescalate the crisis. That agreement called on Kiev to provide amnesty for pro-Russian militias that have seized government buildings in Eastern Ukraine, in exchange for Moscow pulling troops back and beginning direct talks.
"The Ukrainian government in Kiev has followed through on the commitments that it made in Geneva," Obama said Friday during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We need Russians to do the same."
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Moscow's credibility was "seriously in question" and again threatened to impose greater economic penalties against Russia.
"We are prepared, as the president said in the Rose Garden last week with Chancellor Merkel, to increase those costs through the imposition of more severe sanctions should Russia continue to pursue a path of destabilization and engage in an effort to undermine the free and fair presidential elections that will take place in Ukraine on May 25," Carney said.
The Russian stock market jumped almost 6 percent on Wednesday after Putin's comments, according to CNBC.
Putin's moves could also provide more political leeway for Obama, who is facing increased pressure from Capitol Hill to impose additional sanctions on Russia.
“I see the Russians doing everything they can to disrupt those elections,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Mendendez (D-N.J.) said. “It seems to me that there needs to be a consequence up front.”
“It would be my hope that we would do something more robust” than current sanctions, said ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
But despite the encouraging signs, Putin reiterated that he believed Ukraine should implement constitutional reform granting ethnic Russian regions more autonomy before a national vote. He also called on the Ukrainian military to halt its crackdown efforts against separatists.