MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin called Sunday for immediate talks on the future of war-torn east Ukraine, saying for the first time that "statehood" should be discussed.
"We need to immediately begin substantive talks ... on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine with the goal of protecting the lawful interests of the people who live there," Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on a TV show broadcast in the far east of the country.
Russia has previously only called for greater rights under a decentralised federal system for the eastern regions of Ukraine, where predominantly Russian-speakers live.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said it was an "absolutely incorrect interpretation" to understand Putin as calling for the region's independence to be put on the agenda, and that he had only called for "inclusive talks" between Kiev and the separatists.
"Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with Novorossiya and take into account the interests of Novorossiya's population," Peskov was quoted as saying, using the loaded Tsarist-era term "New Russia" that Putin recently reintroduced to talk about several regions in southeastern Ukraine.
Talks are due to be held on Monday in the Belarussian capital Minsk between representatives of Moscow, Kiev and the OSCE but it was unclear if separatists would attend.
Putin's comments are likely to be viewed as something of a Freudian slip in Kiev and the West, who are concerned that Moscow has covertly sent in troops and is bent on carving out a pro-Russian state in eastern Ukraine.
In the TV programme, taped on Friday, Putin did not directly address the possibility of additional Western sanctions on Russia. But he blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the West, accusing it of supporting a "coup" against pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
'Russia cannot stand aside'
"They should have known that Russia cannot stand aside when people are being shot almost at point-blank range," said Putin, adding that he did not have in mind "the Russian state but the Russian people."
Putin has denied that Moscow has sent regular troops to fight in Ukraine, but pro-Moscow rebels have said that many Russian soldiers have volunteered while "on vacation".
The West accused Moscow this week of having its troops spearhead a lightning counter-offensive that has put Ukrainian government forces on the back foot in the nearly five-month conflict.
NATO said on Thursday that Moscow had well over 1,000 troops on the ground in Ukraine and 20,000 massed by the border.
Analysts, including Russian experts, see Putin out to create a statelet in eastern Ukraine, much as Moscow has helped carve out de facto separatist states in Moldova and Georgia.
Putin on Friday called the fighters in eastern Ukraine defenders of "Novorossiya", or New Russia. he first used the Tsarist-era term in April, after annexing Crimea from Ukraine, sparking outrage in Kiev and the West.
'Absolutely natural reaction'
Despite saying that Russia supports a negotiated political solution to the crisis, Putin has used fiery, uncompromising rhetoric in recent days.
In a talk with youth activists on Friday he compared the shelling of the rebel-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk to the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
Aid groups have condemned indiscriminate shelling by both sides in the conflict which has claimed almost 2,600 lives.
Putin put the blame for fighting in eastern Ukraine squarely on Kiev.
"What is now happening, it seems to me, to be an absolutely natural reaction by people who live there and who are defending themselves -- they weren't the first to take up arms."
While people in eastern Ukraine had been concerned about attempts to downgrade the status of the Russian language, there had been no serious incidents of violence in the region until pro-Russian rebels took control of several cities in April. (AFP)