Putin says Russia will respect Ukraine vote as deadly clashes continue

Violent clashes continued in Ukraine, as reports of at least 21 dead overshadowed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that Russia will recognize the outcome of Sunday’s presidential election in the embattled country.

Fighting between pro-Russia separatists and government forces appeared to be escalating, leaving 20 more rebels and one soldier dead, Ukraine's Defense Ministry reported Friday.

As many as 500 insurgents attacked a convoy of government troops Thursday outside the eastern village of Rubizhne, causing 20 insurgent casualties, the ministry said. It also said one Ukrainian soldier was killed early Friday in a separate clash near the same area.

Speaking at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg Friday, Putin said Russia wants peace and order restored in Ukraine. ``We will treat the choice of the Ukrainian people with respect,'' Putin said, according to a Reuters report.

Putin added that the Kremlin will be ready to work with the new leadership. At the same time, he voiced hope that Ukraine's new leader will end military actions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels seized several government buildings and have been fighting Ukrainian forces in deadly street battles for weeks.

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    Earlier, Putin had blamed the West for encouraging a "coup" in Ukraine when the nation's pro-Russian president was chased from power and leading the country into what he called "chaos and a full-scale civil war."

    Describing himself as an optimist, Putin expressed hope for resolving the Ukraine crisis, and said a resolution would help improve dialog with the U.S.

    ”I am not losing faith that the situation in Ukraine will at some point become normal and we will find the inner strength to normalize relations (with the United States),'' Putin said.

    When commenting on the effect of sanctions on many Russian businesses, Putin said the U.S. could be pressing the restrictions to win a competitive edge over Europe, Reuters reported.

    In earlier comments at the forum, Putin said Moscow's largest concern over the crisis in Ukraine was that the former Soviet republic would join NATO. ``Tomorrow Ukraine may join NATO, while the day after tomorrow parts of the U.S. anti-missile system could be deployed there,'' Putin said.

    Russia has long been wary of the expansion of the military bloc into eastern Europe, and specifically former Soviet republics. Putin said last month Russia's move to annex Crimea from Ukraine was partly influenced by concerns over NATO enlargement.

    Putin also said Russia wants to work with the U.S. on many projects. ``We are not planning any self-isolation,'' Putin said. ``We hope that common sense ... will prompt our European and U.S. partners to work with Russia,” Putin said.

    In Kiev, Ukraine's leader urged all voters to take part in the crucial ballot to "cement the foundation of our nation" but pro-Russia insurgents still battled government forces in eastern Ukraine.

    In a live televised address from Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not running, emphasized the importance of Sunday's vote to choose a new leader.

    "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," Turchynov said. "We will never allow anyone to rob us of our freedom and independence, turn our Ukraine into a part of the post-Soviet empire."

    Authorities in Kiev had hoped that a new president would unify the divided nation, where the west looks toward Europe and the east has strong traditional ties to Russia. But they have now acknowledged it will be impossible to hold the vote in some areas in the east -- especially in Donetsk and Luhansk, where insurgents have declared independence and pledged to derail the vote. Election workers and activists say gunmen there have threatened them and seized their voting materials.

    The village of Semenovka on the outskirts of Slovyansk, a city that has been the epicenter of clashes for weeks, has seen continuous shelling by the Ukrainian government forces retaliating to rebel fire.

    Early Friday, a house was destroyed by mortar fire that came from Ukrainian government side, but locals reported no casualties.

    At a security conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged the West to reach a settlement based on mutual interests.

    "If we sincerely want to help the Ukrainian people overcome this crisis, it's necessary to abandon the notorious zero-sum games, stop encouraging xenophobic and neo-Nazi sentiments and get rid of dangerous megalomania," Lavrov said.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.