Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have ignored a public call by Russian president Vladimir Putin to postpone a referendum on self-rule, declaring they would go ahead with a vote that could lead to war.
Yesterday’s decision – which contradicted the conciliatory tone set by Mr Putin just a day earlier – caused consternation in the West, which fears the referendum will tear Ukraine apart.
Some western diplomats said they were surprised at the decision given Moscow’s influence over them. William Burns, the United States deputy secretary of state, said that Russia was heading down a “dangerous and irresponsible path” as the situation in Ukraine was “extremely combustible”.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, expressed gratitude to Mr Putin but said the “People’s Council” had voted unanimously yesterday to hold the poll as planned on Sunday.
“Civil war has already begun,” he told reporters, with a man holding a Kalashnikov standing behind him. “The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process.”
The announcement coincided with a sharp change of tone from Moscow, which had signalled a pull-back from confrontation on Wednesday, with Mr 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 the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, regardless of the rebels’ decision on the vote.
Political analysts said Mr 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, Mr Putin may also hope to avoid further sanctions as earlier measures begin hitting the Russian economy.
Nato and the United States have both said they have seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the frontier despite Mr Putin’s announcement he had pulled back troops.
Mr Putin’s unexpected call to delay the referendum, followed so quickly by the rebel decision to go ahead with it, has complicated US and European efforts to agree a common policy that might lead to tighter economic sanctions on Russia.
The EU said shortly before the announcement that it was waiting to see if Mr Putin’s words would be followed by deeds and that the poll “would have no democratic legitimacy and could only further worsen the situation”.
At the same time, the Russian ambassador to Paris said Mr Putin, shunned by Western leaders since the Crimean takeover, would join them in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 1944.
Meanwhile, in the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk yesterday, target of a Ukrainian military advance that began last week, self-declared mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said a new offensive by Kiev was coming.
“We have enough fighters, enough weapons, the support of the people and we have our land,” he said. “God is with us.”