DONETSK, Ukraine/MOSCOW: 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 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 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 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 recognized by the West, Putin may also hope to avoid further sanctions as earlier measures begin hitting the economy.
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 markets sank after surging 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 industrial output.
Putin’s unexpected 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 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 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 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 II.
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 February.
“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 tires and car bumpers in the occupied regional administration in Donetsk.
“There is no man who can move this referendum,” he said.
In a further shift back toward Cold War-style relations, Putin oversaw test launches of military rockets during training exercises held across Russia Thursday, the day before celebrations of the anniversary of its World War II victory.
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.