(USA Today) Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia wants peace and order to be restored in Ukraine and will "respect' the outcome of Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday.
The Russian leader, speaking at an investment forum in St. Petersburg, slammed the West over its involvement in Ukraine -- and its economic sanctions against Moscow -- but said Russia is ready to work with the new leadership in Kiev.
"We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect," he said.
"It would have been better to hold a referendum and adopt a new constitution," Putin added. "Under the current constitution (Viktor) Yanukovych is still in power."
The elections scheduled for Sunday were part of an agreement, reached by Ukraine, Russia and members of the European Union, that ended massive protests in Kiev in February.
Under the agreement, Yanukovych, a Putin ally, would have remained in office until the voting. But after he hurriedly fled Kiev, and was formally removed from office by Ukraine's parliament, Russia charged that he had been illegally ousted in a coup and distanced itself from the agreement,
Putin's comments Friday were the first time since Russia's subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea that the Kremlin has reiterated its support for Ukraine's elections.
At the same time, he called on the interim government in Kiev to end its mlitary operation against pro-Russian separatists in the east who have seized government buildings and fought government troops for more than a month.
"[Armored personnel carriers] are firing there and journalists are being captured and detained … What are the conditions for holding the elections?" he asked.
In the deadliest attack yet, pro-Russia insurgents attacked a military checkpoint and killed 16 soldiers Thursday, casting a shadow over the presidential vote.
In Kiev, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, on Friday urged all voters to take part in the crucial ballot to "cement the foundation of our nation."
"Today, we are building a new European country the foundation of which was laid by millions of Ukrainians who proved that they are capable of defending their own choice and their country," said Turchynov, who is not running for president.
"We will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."
Putin's remarks were the latest in what appeared to be steps -- at least in public -- by the Kremlin in the past two weeks to ease the crisis over Ukraine.
The Russian leader had called for separatists to postpone their vote on secession and said he had ordered Russian troops massed at the border to withdraw from the border and return to their bases.
Although the separatists went ahead with their independence vote, and claimed overwhelming support in the areas heavily populated by ethnic Russians, Moscow -- unlike in Crimea -- has not taken steps to annex the area.
Putin also used the economic forum as an opportunity to discuss the West's policy of targeted economic sanctions against Russia, which he said was illegal and "destabilizes the situation in our relations with the U.S. and the European Union."
"Yes, of course, we felt the impact of the sanctions, we should be frank about that," he said in response to a question on a panel, but stressed that they had "no systemic impact on our economy."
In a slap at the West over the Ukraine dispute, Putin said Russia is "going to focus on Eurasian investment" from now on, according to Putin.
Gazprom, the state-backed gas giant, signed a 30-year, $400 billion deal this week to supply gas to China.
Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe, but the crisis over Ukraine has prompted Europe to begin to seek other suppliers.
The Kremlin leader told the forum that the current crisis over Ukraine, and its threat to European gas supply, is "not due to Russia but to the situation in the Ukraine, which abuses its position."
Contributing: Associated Press