By LAURA MILLS and PETER LEONARD, Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia will recognize the outcome of Ukraine's presidential vote, President Vladimir Putin promised Friday, voicing hope that Ukraine's new leader would halt the military operation against separatists in the east.
But clashes between pro-Russia separatists and government forces appeared to be heating up, leaving 20 more rebels and one solider dead, Ukraine's Defense Ministry reported Friday. AP reporters saw three other bodies.
Up to 500 insurgents attacked a convoy of government troops in a clash that lasted for several hours Thursday and killed 20 rebels outside the eastern village of Rubizhne, the ministry said. It also said one soldier was killed early Friday near the same area after insurgents ambushed Ukrainian troops in a separate clash.
These claims from the Luhansk region — which has declared independence from Kiev — could not be independently confirmed. It was also not immediately clear why reports of such a major clash in a populated area took more than a day to surface.
In Kiev, 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 eastern Ukraine, where, in addition to the fighting, a vote boycott and threats against election workers were disrupting the upcoming ballot.
AP journalists saw three dead from Friday's fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, another area that has declared independence. One 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.
Speaking at an investment forum in St. Petersburg, Putin said Russia will "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and will work with the new leadership. He said Russia wants peace and order to be restored in its neighbor.
Markets rallied and the ruble surged in value against the dollar Friday as the CEOs and economic experts at the forum praised Putin's efforts to defuse the tensions.
The Russian leader also spoke of mending ties with the United States and the 28-nation European Union, which have slapped asset freezes and travel bans on members of his entourage and had threatened to introduce more crippling sanctions if Russia tried to derail Sunday's vote in Ukraine.
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 any time soon.
Twenty-one candidates are competing Sunday 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. If no one wins in the first round, a runoff will be held June 15 — and most polls predict Poroshenko's victory in that contest.
Poroshenko, the likely winner, will probably focus on forging close ties with the West, said Makarkin, the analyst.
"He may take Russia's interests into account, but only to a limited extent," he said. "A quick warming of ties is unlikely."
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March, grabbing a large section of Ukraine's Black Sea coastline and triggering the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.
Putin blamed the crisis on what he described as Western "snobbery" and a stubborn reluctance to listen to Russia's economic and security concerns. He said the sanctions on his inner circle were unfair.