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Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted Friday that he is ready to deal with whoever wins Ukraine’s presidential election. But his latest vow to facilitate a return of elected leadership in Kiev coincided with new attacks and incursions by pro-Russia gunmen, Ukraine’s Security Service chief reported.

Putin, who earlier denounced the Ukrainian government’s plans for a presidential election on Sunday as illegal and the result of a Western-backed coup, told a gathering of international business leaders in St. Petersburg that he doubted the vote would meet international standards “but let them hold it like that, at least,” he said in apparent acceptance.

Hundreds of foreign election observers have flooded into Ukraine in recent days to take part in international monitoring of the vote, which Kiev’s interim leaders say they have sought in order to confirm that the election is free and fair, at least in those parts of the country under control of the central government.

Militants who Ukrainian and Western leaders accuse of trying to destabilize Ukraine and seize more territory for Russia in the eastern and southern regions of the country occupy government buildings, police stations and broadcast facilities in at least a dozen towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Ukrainian Interior Ministry officials told reporters in Kiev on Friday that 55,000 police and security forces would be standing guard to protect voters and observers, and that thousands of citizen volunteers had also pledged to be on hand for Sunday’s vote in order to thwart any interference by the militants who have threatened election organizers and vowed to prevent balloting in the volatile areas they say they control.

Putin had been seen as encouraging the militants with his accusations that Kiev’s interim leaders are fascists intent on repressing the Russian minority in the east and south of the country. That was the Kremlin leader’s refrain when he sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea territory in late February and proclaimed its reunion with Russia on March 18, two days after a dubious referendum held under military occupation reportedly found 97 percent of the peninsula residents in favor of Russian annexation.

The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on a few dozen Russian officials and businessmen considered complicit in the seizure of Crimea, which has been condemned by the United Nations and unrecognized by any country.

Putin’s toned-down rhetoric about Ukraine’s election in recent weeks may reflect concern that Western threats of more punishing sanctions could deliver a further blow to Russia’s economy, already suffering from an investor panic that has reportedly sent about $200 billion in foreign capital fleeing the country. Russian stocks and the ruble have also taken double-digit hits to their values since the Crimean seizure.