Putin’s promises: If he delivers, tensions over Ukraine can fade

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New steps by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, if carried out, could lead to reduced East-West tensions and conflict over Ukraine.

Mr. Putin stated Wednesday in a news conference in Moscow that Russian forces along the Ukraine border had been withdrawn, that he did not favor the May 11 referendum on Eastern Ukraine’s future that pro-Russian Ukrainians have set and that he would support the May 25 presidential election scheduled by Ukraine under certain conditions.

His good faith in carrying out these pledges is relatively susceptible to Western monitoring. The United States has been tracking through overhead surveillance what Mr. Putin has been doing with the Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, and Pentagon and NATO officials said Thursday they had seen no sign of withdrawal. Sunday’s referendum in Eastern Ukraine, to determine whether parts of it stay with the Kiev government, secede or choose — like Crimea — to join Russia, has not had broad or firm support in that region in any case.

The May 25 election announced by Kiev has been questionable also, given not only the insecurity in Eastern Ukraine but also the shaky status of the demonstration-installed government that would run them. Even supporters of Ukraine disagree on the election’s usefulness. On the one hand, the Kiev government has no legitimacy, having ousted a democratically elected president in a street-level coup — and so the election could give it the authority that it lacks. On the other hand, it is hard to see how balloting held under Ukraine’s present conditions could be considered legitimate. Given all that, postponement probably makes sense.

If Mr. Putin fulfills his pledges it will be incumbent on the United States and Western Europe to reciprocate, perhaps by throttling back on economic sanctions and by winding down military actions in neighboring Poland and the Baltic nations. If both sides play ball, the chances of reducing international conflict over Ukraine will grow, which is a desirable outcome for peace and cooperation in general.

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