Anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine demand autonomy. Putin looks to have withdrawn his support for the vote. The New York Times reports:
Pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine vowed on Thursday to press ahead with a referendum seeking autonomy, a risky move that seemed to defy their political patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose motives in urging a delay in the vote came under furious attack by officials in Kiev.
A day after Mr. Putin scrambled the political landscape by suggesting the vote be put off, militant leaders in Donetsk, Luhansk and Slovyansk said they would go ahead on Sunday as scheduled. Far from mollified by Mr. Putin’s new stance, Ukrainian officials expressed deep suspicions, accusing him of trying to replay events preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Although the ability of separatists to stage a legitimate ballot is highly in doubt, the mere possibility that Russia would use the vote as a pretext for another territorial grab had officials in Kiev calling the referendum illegal and insisting that action to suppress the armed separatists would continue in the days ahead.
“The Ukrainian state has never planned any referendum,” the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, said at a news conference in Kiev. “We cannot cancel or postpone something that doesn’t exist. This is political fraud.”
However the process plays out on Sunday, the prospect of resolving the Ukrainian crisis will hinge more on the reactions in Moscow, Kiev and the West than on the results — real or forged.
Ukrainian officials said Mr. Putin’s remarks were intended to continue destabilizing the country with an eye toward disrupting the far more consequential presidential elections scheduled for May 25. “Any calls for their postponement are not an expression of good will, but simply farce,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “This scenario has already been played by Russia in Crimea.”
But some analysts said Mr. Putin was hedging against the inability of insurgents to pull off a successful ballot measure.
“They control dozens of buildings, but not the entire territory, and don’t have the administrative capacity to organize a vote,” said Michael McFaul, who until earlier this year served as the United States ambassador in Russia. “Moreover, polls show that a free and fair election there would not produce support for splitting with Ukraine.”