DONETSK, Ukraine —
"But we are just a bullhorn for the people," Pushilin said. "We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions."
Kiev's interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.
Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.
"I have very good vision. But while we've noted Russia's statement, so far we haven't seen any — any — indication of troops pulling back," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.
Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found "no undeclared military activities in those regions."
"In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations," Antonov said.
"To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges," he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.
He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.
Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government's plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a "step in the right direction," but reiterated Russia's contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east's Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.