Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis would have a boomerang effect on the West at same time as fighting in eastern Ukraine left at least 20 people dead, casting a shadow over Sunday's presidential vote.
Speaking at an international business forum in St. Petersburg, Putin mostly addressed economic matters, including the signing of a massive gas deal with China earlier this week. He also criticized the situation in Ukraine, calling it for the first time a “full-scale civil war.”
Putin, however, promised to respect the result of Sunday's presidential elections in Ukraine, a move which decreases the risk of more sanctions against Russia.
Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and will work with the new leadership, Putin said, adding Russia wants peace and order to be restored.
Putin’s remarks came as other Russian leaders accused the West of triggering the crisis. The Russian president blasted Western involvement, saying the U.S. vision of a “unipolar” world had failed. He hailed European countries for taking a more “pragmatic” approach to Russia than the United States has. Many countries in the European Union, heavily reliant on Russian gas supplies, have been more reluctant than Washington to impose tough sanctions on Russia.
Putin hinted at the strain between Ukraine and Russia over natural gas. The crisis in Ukraine intensified in December, when Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych signed a multibillion-dollar gas deal with Russia that gave Ukraine discounted gas — a move that rattled protesters calling for closer ties with Europe. Yanukovich was ousted in February. Now Russia is making Ukraine pay up front and at higher rates for its gas.
“We have supplied gas to Ukraine and not been paid,” Putin said through a translator. “Who would supply gas to Ukraine free of charge? There must be some red lines … Give us our money back.”
Putin said he would “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” but added that Sunday’s national vote will not be legitimate because Yanukovych, a pro-Russian who was forced out of power by protests earlier this year, is still the rightful leader of the country.
Other Russian politicians also criticized the West on Friday. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Ukrainian crisis was triggered by Western “megalomania.”
“If we sincerely want to help the Ukrainian people overcome this crisis, it’s necessary to abandon the notorious zero-sum games, stop encouraging xenophobic and neo-Nazi sentiments and get rid of dangerous megalomania,” Lavrov said in Moscow during a speech at a security conference organized by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Speaking at the same conference, the head of the General Staff of the Russian military, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, blamed the West for encouraging the massive protests that drove Yanukovych from power in February.
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March, triggering the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War. Pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and fought government troops for more than a month.
Clashes between pro-Russia separatists and government forces appeared to be heating up, leaving 20 rebels and one soldier dead outside the eastern village of Rubizhne, Ukraine's Defense Ministry reported Friday.
Another incident, also in Rubizhne, saw a Ukrainian military unit attacked by an unknown number of rebels, resulting in the death of one soldier and injuries for three others. Both incidents took place on Thursday. It is not clear why reports of such a major violence in a populated area took more than a day to surface.
In a separate development, at least two people were killed during a three-hour firefight Friday morning between Ukrainian self-defense fighters and separatists manning a checkpoint west of the industrial city of Donetsk. Some news reports suggested a higher death toll was likely.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's interim government and the West hope that the vote will help stabilize the country, but authorities in Kiev acknowledged it will be impossible to hold the vote in some areas in the east, where insurgents have declared independence and pledged to derail the vote. Election workers and activists have reported threats and interference from gunmen.
Many in the east resent the government in Kiev, seeing it as a group of nationalists bent on repressing Ukraine’s numerous Russian speakers. But many in the rebellious regions also have grown increasingly exasperated with the insurgents, whom they blame for putting civilians in the crossfire.
Al Jazeera and wire services