Lugansk (Ukraine) – Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Wednesday a positive outcome to the first international peace talks on Ukraine but also upped the pressure by warning Kiev's interim leaders against making any irreversible mistakes.
The veteran strongman's mixed message came as Kalashnikov-wielding separatists barricaded inside state offices in the Russified east of Ukraine remained locked in a standoff that the country's police chief said should be resolved within 48 hours but may require the use of force.
A seeming breakthrough in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era emerged Tuesday when US and EU diplomats managed to convince both Moscow and Kiev to come together for four-way negotiations that one source in Brussels said should be held in Vienna on April 17.
At stake are not only the vast ex-Soviet state's territorial integrity and political future but also the fate of the West's relations with Moscow and all the repercussions this carries for global security in the coming years.
Putin signalled that he expected the talks to follow his idea of turning Ukraine into a loose federation whose eastern regions could establish their own diplomatic and trade relations with Russia — a proposal rejected by Kiev outright.
"I hope that the initiative of Russian foreign ministry on adjusting the situation and changing it for the better will have consequences, and that the outcome will be positive," Putin told a televised government meeting.
"At the very least, I hope that the acting (leaders) will not do anything that cannot be fixed later," Putin added without specifying what kind of mistakes he had in mind.
But a top US official said Washington was not setting the bar too high for the negotiations even if it did welcome the opportunity to have direct talks.
"I have to say that we don't have high expectations for these talks but we do believe it is very important to keep that diplomatic door open and will see what they bring," US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in Washington.
– 'We have nothing to lose' –
Ukraine has been in crisis since months of deadly protests ousted an unpopular pro-Kremlin president in February and set the nation of 46 million on a westward course that prompted Putin to obtain the authority to use force against the ex-Soviet state.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops who last month seized Crimea are now massed along eastern regions of Ukraine that are being riven by protests in favour of joining Kremlin rule.
The pressure on Kiev's interim leaders — already faced with a punitive 80-percent hike in the price they have to pay for Russian gas — mounted still further when pro-Kremlin militants seized several state buildings and proclaimed their independence.
The standoff now revolves around the administration centre in the bustling industrial city of Donetsk and the security service headquarters of Ukraine's eastern-most region of Lugansk.
The Donetsk activists have already pronounced the creation of their own "sovereign republic" while the their Lugansk counterparts have broken into the security building's weapons cache and are now armed with dozens of machine guns.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told reporters that the gunmen faced "two options: political — in other words, negotiations — or the use of force."
Avakov said he expected the occupations to end "within the next 48 hours" and signalled that force remained an option.
"For those ready for dialogue, there will be a political solution. And for the fringe for whom the most important thing is conflict, they will be met with force."
But the Lugansk gunmen — many of them wearing body armour and hiding behind balaclavas and masks — said they intended to stick to their main demand of a referendum on becoming a part of Russia.
"We are refusing to lay down our arms as we have been asked. We have nothing to lose," a 49-year-old separatist named Oleg Desyatnikov told AFP amid barricades of tyres and old furniture erected around the perimeter of the ageing four-storey building.
"We are willing to negotiate, but no one wants to listen. Instead, they are threatening us with an assault," said Desyatnikov.
"If we are attacked, we will respond," he warned.
– 'No reason to worry' –
Western allies have bluntly accused the Kremlin of paving the way for a possible invasion by fomenting eastern unrest.
US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to cast aside the last vestiges of diplomatic decorum Tuesday by blaming the secessionist movement on Russian provocateurs and agents".
British Foreign Secretary William Hague backed up that message by noting the flareup bore "all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine".
But the Russian foreign ministry argued Wednesday that "the United States and Ukraine have no reason to worry" because Moscow had no intention to invade its neighbour.