Vladimir Putin surprised everyone Wednesday by urging pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine's east to postpone their referendum on independence from Kiev, and appearing to endorse the interim government's plan to hold presidential elections on May 25.
In a Kremlin meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who is also chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Mr. Putin also insisted – as Russian officials have been doing for more than a week – that Russia has long since pulled back its 40,000 troops from the Ukrainian border and is no longer threatening to intervene in the country's restive east.
It's unclear whether this marks a real change in policy. But the Russian president appears to have at least offered a way for Kiev and the east to halt their grim march toward civil war.
According to Russian news agencies, Putin is throwing his support behind a new "road map" for peace and reconciliation in Ukraine that is being prepared under the auspices of the OSCE. The road map will involve a cease-fire, deescalation of tensions, and a national dialogue, followed by elections to create a legitimate government that reflects all regions of the strife-torn country.
"We are asking representative of the South-East of Ukraine, the supporters of federalization to postpone the referendum slated for May 11 in order to create proper conditions for this dialogue," Putin said.
"Russia [also] calls for an immediate halt to all military and punitive operations in the South-East of Ukraine," being carried out by the Kiev interim government, he added.
It's not clear whether Ukrainian rebels will heed Putin's appeal. The official RIA-Novosti agency quoted one protest leader in Donetsk, Alexander Vaskovsky, as saying "there is no need to do this [postpone the vote]. I’m extremely negative about this."
The Pentagon said that it has seen no sign of a withdrawal by Russian troops. But some experts say Putin's remarks represent a breakthrough in a crisis that appeared in recent days to be drifting toward civil war.
"Putin's declaration means there is light at the end of the tunnel," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
"There is a compromise in the works. Russia withdraws its troops and recognizes Ukrainian elections. There will be no referendum in the east of Ukraine, hence no need to occupy administrative buildings. The Kiev authorities will end their so-called 'anti-terrorist' operation. I believe the Europeans have finally understood the need for such compromise. They do not want a failed state at the heart of Europe," he says.
But Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant, warns that there may be less to Putin's declaration than meets the eye.
"He did not tell the pro-Russians in the east to abandon the referendum, he merely said they should postpone it until conditions are more suitable," he says. "Indeed, the appointed date for that referendum is barely three days away, and there is no sign that it could be carried out in a credible fashion anyway. So, Putin is selling a dubious concession for the highest price he can get."
Still, Mr. Strokan says, it's the best news about Ukraine in weeks. "It's just too early to declare it a game-changer. Let's wait and see if real and meaningful steps follow."