Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call to delay a referendum in eastern Ukraine on secession, pro-Russian separatists have refused to postpone the vote, which is set for Sunday.
Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian activist leader in Donetsk and self-proclaimed chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) council, said Thursday the decision among the separatists was unanimous.
The suggestion for a postponement may have come "from a person who indeed cares for the people of the south-east," Pushilin told the Associated Press, "but we are the bullhorn of the people."
On Wednesday, Putin called for a delay in the secession vote.
"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said, adding that this could create an opportunity for dialogue between Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian separatists.
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"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern. We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds," Putin said.
Ukrainian authorities say the referendum results will be disregarded and the country will continue its “anti-terror” operations. The White House echoed Kiev’s statement by saying the vote is "illegitimate, illegal" and should be cancelled rather than postponed.
A Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday show that a clear majority of eastern Ukrainians want to maintain its current borders.
Sunday’s referendum has eerie similarities to what took place in the Crimean peninsula in March. Such a vote was held that resulted in Crimea seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
If the referendum takes place, it wouldn’t be the first time separatists defied international calls to step down from confrontation. After world leaders agreed to an international truce in April, pro-Russian separatists refused to vacate seized government buildings and public spaces.
Analysts say Putin’s latest remarks may not hold much weight.
“He really promised nothing,” Kirill Rogov, an economic analyst and political commentator in Moscow, told the New York Times. “He demonstrated that he controls the level of tension in Ukraine. He can return the situation to the high levels of violence at any moment. He did not refuse the referendum, but only proposed delaying it.”
Most analysts agree Putin wants to avoid a war and a small Ukrainian invasion would not have resolved the ongoing crisis the way it did in Crimea.
“This one would not have been bloodless,” Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst and a commentator for Kommersant FM radio, told the New York Times. “This would have been a real war, not by stealth, not by new methods, but a real old-fashioned war, and this is something that Mr. Putin does not want.”