ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Vladimir Putin pledged Friday that Russia will respect the results of Ukraine's presidential election, a strong indication the Kremlin wants to cool down the crisis. But new violence and rebel vows to block the balloting made prospects for peace appear distant.
New clashes were reported between pro-Russia separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine as Kiev continued an offensive to try to halt the uprising.
Associated Press reporters saw two dead Ukrainian soldiers near the village of Karlivka, and another body near a rebel checkpoint, both in the Donetsk region. A rebel leader said 16 more people died Friday in fighting there – 10 soldiers, four rebels and two civilians – but there was no immediate way to verify his statement.
In Kiev, the Defense Ministry said 20 insurgents were killed in an attack on a convoy of government troops Thursday by about 500 rebels, the largest insurgent assault yet reported. The clash could not be independently confirmed and it was unclear why such a large attack in a populated region would have gone unreported for more than a day. The ministry also said one soldier was killed Friday near the same area.
On Thursday, 16 troops were killed near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk in the deadliest raid yet on Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine's caretaker president urged all voters to take part in Sunday's crucial ballot to "cement the foundation of our nation." Yet it was uncertain whether any voting could take place in the east, where rebels who declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent have vowed to block what they call an election for the leader of a foreign country.
Authorities in Kiev had hoped that a new president would unify the divided nation, whose western regions look toward Europe and the east has strong traditional ties to Russia. But they have now acknowledged it will be impossible to hold the vote in some areas in the east – especially in Donetsk and Luhansk. Election workers and activists say gunmen there have threatened them and seized their voting rolls and stamps.
Kiev and Western countries allege Russia is fomenting the unrest, possibly with the aim of justifying an invasion. Russia denies it, but it is showing signs of wanting the crisis to settle down. Moscow has been hit by U.S. and European sanctions after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Putin told an international economic forum Friday that Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" in the election and will work with the new leadership. Since Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February following months of protests, Moscow has denounced the interim authorities as a junta.
Russian recognition of the election winner – which may require a runoff June 15 if no candidate gets an absolute majority Sunday – would be an important step toward resolving the crisis. Putin also made it clear, however, that Russia will continue to push for Kiev to end its offensive.
Markets rallied and the ruble surged in value against the dollar as the CEOs and economic experts at the forum praised Putin's efforts to defuse the tensions.
Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank, said Putin's comments reflected a desire to avoid another round of Western sanctions. He added, however, that Russia's relations with Ukraine will be unlikely to normalize anytime soon.
Twenty-one candidates are competing to become Ukraine's next leader. Polls show billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead but falling short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. His nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the divisive former prime minister who is trailing by a significant margin.
Most polls predict a Poroshenko victory in a runoff.
Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, estimated that more than 60 polling stations will be operating in Donetsk and about 50 percent of the stations in Luhansk will be ready, although international observers might not be at all stations in those areas because of security concerns.
"We expect a huge participation in all the regions, more than 70 percent," he said.
Putin blamed the crisis on what he described as "snobbery" by the West for supporting the anti-Yanukovych protests and the interim government. He said the West is reluctant to listen to Russia's economic and security concerns regarding Ukraine. Moscow fears Ukraine will seek NATO membership and that closer economic ties with the European Union could undermine trade with Ukraine.
The West "supported the coup and plunged the country into chaos, and now they try to blame us for that and have us clean up their mess," Putin added.
He also alleged that by pressing the EU to impose stronger sanctions against Russia, the U.S. was trying to weaken a competitor.
"Maybe the Americans, who are quite shrewd, want to win a competitive edge over Europe by insisting on introducing sanctions against Russia?" he asked.
On a more positive note, he hoped that "common sense will push our partners in the United States and Europe toward continuing cooperation with Russia."
Sergeyev said Putin's comments were "good signs," but "we trust deeds, not words."
When White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether he believed Putin's comments, he replied: "We'll have to see whether in fact Russia does recognize and take steps to engage with the Ukrainian government and the victor of the presidential election."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Russian officials "need to call on the separatists that they have influence with to not try to disrupt the election."
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not running, emphasized the importance of the balloting.
"Today, we are building a new European country, the foundation of which was laid by millions of Ukrainians who proved that they are capable of defending their own choice and their country," Turchynov said. "We will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, (and) turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."