Published September 01. 2014 4:00AM
Moscow - Seeming to be searching for the right word during a prerecorded television interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Sunday 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.
"The way, extent and mechanisms of this process - that's what the president meant," Peskov said, in remarks to Russian news agencies.
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.
In Washington, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should supply arms to Ukraine.
"We should be providing the Ukrainians with the type of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon Putin for further aggression," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "Thousands of Russian troops are directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion."
Though a few European leaders, such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, support aiding Ukraine militarily, the E.U. is highly unlikely to agree to such a course.
Moscow's ambassador to the E.U., Vladimir Chizhov, told Russia's Interfax news agency that the reluctance to outfit Ukraine with arms was "a bright ray of light against a generally bleak background."
Chizhov also criticized the E.U. as being "in the grip of sanction inertia," even though sanctions are "not effective"-a point on which he and Menendez apparently agree.
Europe's stance comes as a blow to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had hoped the E.U. would broaden the list of arms available to Ukraine to help fight the separatists.
The area where the coast guard vessels were fired upon Sunday has become the focus of attention in recent days amid fears that the separatists will expand the conflict west to the key port city of Mariupol and toward Crimea.
In Novoazovsk, however, fewer sightings of Russian tanks were reported. Ukrainian troops noted only two, parked at the city entrances with the flag of "Novorossiya" - an 18th-century word for eastern Ukrainian lands settled by Russians, and one that has been revived by the Kremlin. In the town itself, life returned to a semblance of normal, with shops and markets reopening.
NATO has cited evidence presented by Ukrainian authorities as well as its own satellite imagery to conclude that Russia has been supplying separatists with military material and has been firing on Ukrainian forces-including from within Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Saturday that these moves threaten to bring the Ukrainian crisis to a "point of no return," and he warned Moscow not to test the E.U.'s "resolve to stand by its principles and values" - one of the E.U.'s strongest diplomatic condemnations of Russia since member nations imposed economic sanctions on the country in July targeting its defense, energy and financial-services industries.
In his television interview, recorded Friday, Putin scoffed at Europe's support for Ukraine, arguing that it ran directly counter to purported European values.
"What are the so-called European values?" Putin asked. "Maintaining the coup, the armed seizure of power and the suppression of dissent with the help of the armed forces? Are those modern European values?
"Our colleagues need to remember their own ideals," he said.
Putin said the separatists, under fire from government troops, could not sit still without defending themselves against Ukrainian forces - which he likened on Friday to the Nazi invaders of World War II.
Russians, too, "cannot remain indifferent to the fact that people are being shot at almost point-blank range," he said.
While Kiev and its allies see the crisis in eastern Ukraine as an armed rebellion fomented and aided by Moscow, Russians have argued that it is a fight for self-determination.
Putin called for an end to the hostilities during his interview, but he stressed that a resolution "largely depends on the political will of today's Ukrainian leadership."
He spoke fairly positively about Poroshenko, calling him "a partner with whom you can engage in dialogue" and saying their first one-on-one discussion during a summit in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday was "very good" and "quite frank."
But Putin said he did not expect the fighting to stop as Ukraine heads into a parliamentary election season.
Poroshenko recently called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections, which are scheduled for Oct. 26.