DONETSK: 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. US 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 yesterday to hold the plebiscite as planned.
“Civil war has already begun,” he said. “The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process.” A man holding a Kalashnikov stood behind him.
The announcement coincided with a sharp change of tone from Moscow, which had signalled a pullback from confrontation on Wednesday with Putin’s call for the vote to be delayed and a declaration that troops were withdrawing from Ukraine’s border.
In Kiev, officials promised to press on with their “anti-terrorist campaign” to retake control over the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regardless of the rebels’ decision on the vote.
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 economy.
Putin’s spokesman said the Kremlin needed more information about the rebels’ decision. He 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.
Nato and the United States have both said they have seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the frontier despite Putin’s announcement he had pulled back troops.
When Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumussen 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. Reuters