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Putin reverses on Ukraine, renounces right to send troops

MOSCOW/VIENNA (Reuters) — President Vladimir Putin asked Russia’s upper house on Tuesday to revoke the right it had granted him to order a military intervention in Ukraine in defense of Russian-speakers there.

Minutes before he spoke, Kiev said pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine had shot down a military helicopter, most likely killing all nine on board. It was the most serious breach of a temporary ceasefire agreed in talks between government and rebels less than 24 hours earlier.

Putin’s move received a cautious welcome in the West as a sign Moscow was ready to help engineer a settlement in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, where a pro-Russian uprising against Kiev began in April. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it a “first practical step” following Putin’s statement of support last weekend for Poroshenko’s peace plan for eastern Ukraine.

But later he told security chiefs to “open fi re without hesitation” if government forces came under attack, and “did not rule out bringing the ceasefire regime to an early end” if rebels continued to breach it, his press service said.

Putin himself said he now expected Ukraine to begin talks on guaranteeing the rights of its Russian-speaking minority, which Russia would continue to defend.

“It is not enough to announce a ceasefire,” he told reporters on a visit to Vienna. “A substantive discussion of the essence of the problems is essential.”

In the March 1 resolution, the Federation Council had granted Putin the right to “use the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country normalizes.”

That resolution, together with Russia’s March annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, helped push East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and led the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow. The Federation Council was expected to approve the reversal today.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: “We expect Russia to withdraw its troops and military infrastructure from the Ukrainian border, end its support for armed separatist groups, and the flow of weapons and mercenaries across its border, as well as denounce publicly separatist violence in Ukraine.”

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton declined comment when asked whether Putin’s step would reduce the likelihood of tougher sanctions being agreed at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. President Barack Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and agreed that the United States and the European Union would “work to implement additional coordinated measures to impose costs on Russia” if it failed to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, the White House said.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also spoke with Poroshenko and “underscored the importance of having monitors in place to verify violations of the ceasefire, as well as the need to stop the supply of weapons and militants from across the border,” the White House said.