Councils of two self-proclaimed independent regions in eastern Ukraine voted on Thursday to carry on with planned referendums on secession from Ukraine this Sunday, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to postpone them.
Leaders in Luhansk, Donetsk and Slavyansk all confirmed plans for the controversial referendums. Nikola Nikitin, a spokesman for the armed wing of the Luhansk People’s Republic, told reporters that the leadership had made their decision:
“… The Luhansk council announced that the decision from May 5 to hold a referendum on May 11 will remain unchanged with one question: Whether you support the act of state independence of the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Representatives from Slavyansk and Donetsk echoed Nikitin’s remarks. Denis Pushilin, the self-styled head of People's Republic of Donetsk, went as far as to say there was already a civil war happening and the referendum was the way to stop it. Ukraine launched a military campaign last week to regain control of the southeastern part of the country with mixed results. Putin has repeatedly called for Ukraine to withdraw troops.
Putin surprised many this week by asking that the referendum be postponed and by declaring Russian forces had moved away from the Ukrainian border, where they have been massed since Russian troops moved into Crimea. The U.S. and NATO both said they didn’t notice any changes in Russian troop movement.
He also voiced support for the Ukrainian presidential elections on May 25, calling them a step “in the right direction.”
The Ukrainian government says Putin is trying to distance Russia from the separatists and quell calls that he do something to de-escalate the crisis. Russia has consistently contended that the burden lays on the West and Ukraine’s interim government to de-escalate the crisis by respecting the sentiments of separatists.
A sizeable chunk of Ukraine’s heavy industry is located in the southeast and would be lost with an affirmative vote in a referendum. Donetsk is Ukraine’s most populous Oblast (province) with 4.5 million people, or 10 percent of Ukrainian’s population.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and former Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns called the situation “extremely combustible” while the European Union said the referendum “would have no democratic legitimacy and could only further worsen the situation.”
Ukraine has repeatedly voiced its suspicion over nearly every remark that has come from Putin or a member of the Russian government. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk warned against Russian provocation and propaganda in the days surrounding Victory Day on Friday, when Ukraine will celebrate its defeat of German Nazis in World War II.