YALTA, Crimea — Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to a much-hyped meeting in Crimea amid expectations of more saber-rattling over Ukraine, but he instead struck a conciliatory note and called for peace in a speech Thursday that received surprisingly brief coverage on Russian television.
Putin’s cautious statements and the terse reports in state media could signal a Kremlin desire to de-escalate the worst crisis in Russia-West relations since the Cold War. Putin’s remarks contrasted with hawkish speeches by senior lawmakers in a carefully choreographed performance apparently intended to contain the nationalist fervor that has become a problem for the Kremlin.
Putin’s show came as a large Russian aid convoy pulled close to the Ukrainian border amid tense arguments over its route and border clearance. Ukraine has threatened to use all means to block it if it’s not duly inspected by Ukrainian border and customs officers and the Red Cross, but Russia sent it toward a rebel-controlled checkpoint instead in a clear show of defiance.
During a meeting with hundreds of lawmakers, Putin spoke with a restraint that contrasted sharply with lawmakers’ bellicose speeches.
Referring to a suggestion by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky that the Kremlin should take as an example the czar’s decision to enter World War I and test new Russian weapons on Ukrainian forces, Putin said that “Russia should learn from mistakes.”
Contrary to the long-established pattern of broadcasting key Putin’s speeches live and covering them prominently in every news program throughout the day, Russian state television stations had no live feed from Yalta and buried the event deep in their programs, only showing Putin with a voiceover.
Other television crews in Crimea were not allowed into the room to film it, even though the meeting had been advertised as a major political event.
There was no explanation for the unprecedented brevity of the media coverage, but it could reflect Kremlin efforts to tone down rhetoric and soothe passions over Ukraine.
Russian state media have for weeks clamored over a “fascist junta” in Kiev and purported atrocities committed by Ukrainian troops in their campaign against pro-Russian rebels in the east, whipping up rage among ordinary Russians. In a seeming response to the public’s indignation, Russian lawmakers who met Putin at a giant conference hall in the resort town of Yalta called for blood.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party, called for Russia to assume “a tougher stance” against Kiev, arguing that “the lack of a vocal position of our country prevents us from fully protecting the people and stopping the bloodshed.”
But Putin called for a quick end to the conflict: “The country has plunged into a bloody chaos, a fratricidal conflict, a humanitarian catastrophe has hit southeastern Ukraine. We will do all we can to stop this conflict as soon as possible and end bloodshed in Ukraine.”
Putin has resisted nationalist calls for sending the Russian army into Ukraine, apparently realizing that it would trigger devastating Western sanctions that could send the Russian economy into a nosedive and quickly erode his power.
The Kremlin has dismissed Ukrainian and Western claims that it was fomenting the rebellion in the east with soldiers and weapons and insisted that Russian citizens fighting there were acting on their own. Moscow also has rejected U.S. and NATO claims of a military buildup along the Ukrainian border.
Speaking Thursday in Arendal, Norway, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance expects Russia to pull back its troops from the border and stop supporting the mutiny.
“If it’s a sincere attempt to de-escalate the situation, I would warmly welcome the speech and the following steps from the Russian side,” he said, asked about Putin’s remarks. “Unfortunately, we have seen such statements previously without seeing them transformed into concrete action.”
Putin listened on impassively as the flamboyant Zhirinovsky suggested that Russia call itself an empire and change the title of the head of state to Supreme Leader. The president later took the microphone to say that Zhirinovsky was expressing personal views that do not reflect the government’s position.
While issuing conciliatory statements, Putin said the government would modernize the military and beef up its forces in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March after the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president following months of protests.
He also warned that Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. “We will give joy to our partners with those ideas and their implementation, I mean those (weapons) systems,” he said, adding that they so far have been kept under wraps.
Speaking about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning an entire class of nuclear missiles that President Ronald Reagan signed with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, Putin said that Russia feels concerned about Pakistan and some other countries developing such weapons, and is analyzing the situation.
The U.S. administration last month accused Russia of violating the pact, a claim that Moscow rejected.
Without specifically referring to the INF Treaty, Putin warned that Russia could opt out of some agreements if it sees them as failing to meet its security needs.
Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.