A pro-Russian separatist rides in a car in Slaviansk in
eastern Ukraine. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine ignored a
public call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone a
referendum on self-rule, declaring they would go ahead on
Sunday with a vote that could lead to war.
The decision, which contradicted the conciliatory tone set by
Putin just a day earlier, caused consternation in the West,
which fears the referendum will tear Ukraine apart.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said Russia was
heading down a "dangerous and irresponsible path" and the
situation in Ukraine was "extremely combustible".
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared separatist
Donetsk People's Republic, expressed gratitude to Putin but
said the "People's Council" had voted unanimously on Thursday
to hold the plebiscite as planned.
"Civil war has already begun," he told reporters. "The
referendum can put a stop to it and start a political
process." A man holding a Kalashnikov stood behind him.
Political analysts said Putin may have expected the rebels to
go ahead with the referendum, showing that they were not
under his orders. By distancing himself from a process that
will not be recognised by the West, Putin may also hope to
avoid further sanctions as earlier measures begin hitting the
His spokesman said the Kremlin needed more information about
the rebels' decision. He also said the rebel statement came
only after the Western-backed government in Kiev had declared
it would press on with its military operation, implying that
Ukraine was to blame for the rebels' refusal to heed Putin.
Russian financial markets sank after surging on Wednesday
when Putin unexpectedly called for the vote to be delayed and
declared that troops were withdrawing from Ukraine's border.
NATO and the United States both said they saw no sign of a
Russian withdrawal from the frontier.
When NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted as
much, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted back that "those
with a blind eye" should read Putin's statement.
NATO has accused Moscow of using special forces in the
separatist takeover of mainly Russian-speaking eastern
Ukraine after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Putin acknowledged his troops were active in Crimea after
initially denying any role there but says they are not
involved in eastern Ukraine, a densely populated steel and
coal belt responsible for roughly a third of Ukraine's
About 40 armed men attacked a Ukrainian border post on the
Russian frontier on Thursday and tried to seize it, but were
beaten off by Ukrainian forces, the border guard in Kiev
Putin's call to delay the referendum, followed so quickly by
the rebel decision to go ahead with it, have complicated U.S.
and European efforts to agree a common policy that might lead
to tighter economic sanctions on Russia.
The European Union said shortly before the referendum
announcement that the plebiscite "would have no democratic
legitimacy and could only further worsen the situation".
The EU has laid the groundwork for possible sanctions against
Russian companies, including energy giants, over Ukraine and
diplomats said they could decide which on Monday, but that,
if any, they would only be those linked to Crimea.
Last month's U.S. and Canadian sanctions were tougher than
the EU's and Moscow said on Thursday it had retaliated by
expanding the list of U.S. and Canadian officials barred from
Russia but would not give details.
At the same time, the Russian ambassador to Paris said Putin,
who had been largely shunned by Western leaders since the
Crimean takeover, would join them in a ceremony to mark the
70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in World War Two.
SOME COMMON GROUND
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry discussed by phone on Thursday joint efforts
to defuse the crisis, which also involve the EU and OSCE
European security organisation, the Foreign Ministry in
International mediators took peace proposals to Kiev on
Thursday. The draft "road map", seen by Reuters, takes no
direct view on the referendum but said national elections
planned by the pro-Western leadership in Kiev for May 25 were
vital to stabilising the country.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said the plan, drawn up by the
Swiss chair of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe) had "some common ground" with its own
The referendum has become seen as a vital step by many in
Ukraine's industrial east, fired up over what the rebels, and
Moscow, call the "fascist" government in Kiev that took over
after street protests ousted a pro-Moscow president in
"You have no idea how many armed people there are in Donetsk
right now," Roman Lyagin, the 33-year-old head of the
self-proclaimed republic's election commission, told Reuters
at his headquarters behind barricades of tyres and car
bumpers in the occupied regional administration in Donetsk.
"There is no man who can move this referendum," he said.
Ballots, printed in Donetsk, have been distributed across the
rebel zone, smuggled through Ukrainian army checkpoints.
Lyagin says more than three million people are eligible to
Artyom, a rebel at a roadblock in the rebel-held eastern town
of Slaviansk, said of the referendum decision: "This is great
news. We need to have our say."
While many Russian speakers in Ukraine fear discrimination
under the new leadership, the extent of support for the
separatists - many of whom say their ultimate aim is to join
Russia - is not so clear. Opinion polls say a majority wish
to remain in Ukraine, but with a far greater degree of
Putin said his call for the vote's postponement would open
the way to negotiations on cooling down a crisis that has led
to dozens of deaths in clashes between troops and separatists
in eastern Ukraine and rival groups in the southern port of
On Thursday he again blamed Kiev, saying its "irresponsible
politics" had caused the crisis while in the Ukrainian
capital, officials said the government would not talk to
"terrorists" - their word for the separatists.
Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Center think-tank in
Moscow, said Putin would have known that his request for the
referendum to be postponed would be rebuffed.
"But this can be used to show that the people in Ukraine's
east are not Russians, take no orders from Russia, that
Russia exercises no control over them because they only do
what they want to do," she said. "He has also distanced
Russia from the referendum, which has a completely unclear
status and will not be recognised by the West."
Western leaders have threatened more sanctions if the
presidential election on May 25 is disrupted. Putin said on
Wednesday it was "a step in the right direction"; on
Thursday, Lavrov said the election would be "senseless" if
Kiev did not end its military operation against the
In a further shift back towards Cold War-style relations,
Putin oversaw test launches of military rockets during
training exercises held across Russia on Thursday, the day
before celebrations of the anniversary of its World War Two
Britain said it had deployed a destroyer to track an
unusually large Russian naval task force transiting the
English Channel and also noted a "resurgence" in Russian air
activity close to its airspace.