Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed for talks between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists that could lead to a “political settlement” between the two sides after months of fighting, Reuters reported. Putin’s comments Sunday stirred debate, as it was believed he was pushing for statehood for eastern Ukraine, an interpretation that was clarified by a government representative.

“We must immediately get down to a substantial, substantive negotiations, and not on technical questions, but on the questions of the political organization of society and statehood in the southeast of Ukraine with the purpose of unconditional provision of the lawful interests of people who live there,” Putin said on Russia’s state television Channel One, as translated by the Interpreter of the Herzen Foundation and Institute of Modern Russia. As the Interpreter explained it, Putin used the word “gosudarstvennost,” which can mean either “statehood” of “form of government.”

Statehood for eastern Ukraine could help Russia maintain its influence in the area, BBC News’ Steve Rosenberg said.

However, Putin representative Dmitry Peskov denied the statehood interpretation, Itar-Tass reported. “These are the inclusive talks that should determine the relationship with the eastern regions, that is, negotiations inside Ukraine on the internal Ukrainian order with respect for the interests of the country’s eastern regions, the interests of Novorossia: the way, extent and mechanisms of this process. That’s what the president meant,” Peskov said. “Novorossia” is the name given to eastern Ukraine by separatists.

Earlier Sunday, Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners that had entered the other’s territory, Reuters reported. Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine and is expected to reach the port city of Mariupol. Kiev and Western capitals have claimed the separatists are backed by 1,000 armored Russian troops, but Moscow has denied those claims.