MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on the future of war-torn east Ukraine, saying for the first time that "statehood" should be considered for the region.
"We need to immediately begin substantive talks ... on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood in south-eastern Ukraine with the goal of protecting the lawful interests of the people who live there," Mr 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 to be accorded to the eastern regions of Ukraine, where predominantly Russian-speakers live.
In the programme, taped on Friday, Mr Putin did not directly address 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.
"They should have known that Russia cannot stand aside when people are being shot almost at point-blank range," said Mr Putin, adding that he did not have in mind "the Russian state but the Russian people."
Mr Putin has denied that Moscow has sent regular troops to fight in Ukraine, but pro-Russian 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 Mr Putin out to create a statelet in eastern Ukraine, much as Moscow has helped carve out de facto separatist states in Moldova and Georgia.
Mr Putin on Friday called the fighters in eastern Ukraine defenders of "Novorossiya", or New Russia, a loaded Tsarist-era name for what is now southern and eastern Ukraine.
He first used the term in April, after annexing Crimea from Ukraine, sparking outrage in Kiev and the West.
Despite saying that Russia supports a negotiated political solution to the crisis, Mr 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.
Mr 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.