Kremlin leaders on Monday declared their “respect” for the choice of independence expressed by voters in two regions of eastern Ukraine in a referendum widely denounced by the outside world as illegal and dangerous encouragement of militants angling to divide Ukraine.
The Kremlin statement made no mention of a reported appeal by at least one of the breakaway regions to be annexed to Russia, as was Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March.
A leader of the Donetsk insurgency, Denis Pushilin, told journalists at the militant-occupied regional government headquarters that an appeal had already been made to Moscow for the region to be made part of the Russian Federation.
"The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world," Pushilin said. "For us, the history of Russia is our history."
In the neighboring Luhansk region, rebel leader Pavel Gubarev told Russia Today television after the referendum on Sunday that he hoped to merge his territory with Donetsk in a "new entity" but made no mention of Russian annexation.
The Kremlin statement read at a Moscow news conference by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to telegraph to Russian supporters in the rebellious Ukrainian regions that they are on their own to negotiate a more autonomous status with the central government in Kiev.
"Moscow respects the will of the people in Donetsk and Lugansk and hopes that the practical realization of the outcome of the referendums will be carried out in a civilized manner, without resorting to violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk,” reads the Kremlin statement, which used the Russian spelling of Luhansk.
That moral support is likely to fall short of expectations of the referendum organizers, many of whom presented the controversial vote as an opportunity to realign their regions with Moscow.
For those who support Ukrainian unity, the Kremlin signal that a swift Crimea-like annexation is not in the offing was likely to come as a relief.
In spite of the Kremlin's apparent distancing of the rebels, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of attempting to “totally destabilize the situation in Ukraine, disrupt the [May 25] presidential election and overthrow the Ukrainian government.”
Turchynov called the votes in Donetsk and Luhansk regions a "propaganda farce" that would have no legal consequence except for potential criminal charges against their organizers.
Much of Donetsk was eerily vacant Sunday as opponents of the referendum stayed home or spent the weekend in the countryside rather than cast “no” votes. A semblance of normal city life returned Monday, the first day back to work and school after more than a week of holidays to observe May Day, the Allied triumph over Nazism in World War II and the Sunday referendum.
A morning deluge dampened the celebratory overnight atmosphere in the grimy camp that surrounds the Donetsk regional government headquarters, which has been occupied for more than a month by the armed militants and barricaded with tires, bricks and barbed wire.
Early Monday, self-proclaimed leaders in the occupied regional capitals presented the results of their unmonitored balloting as a rousing success, claiming nearly 90% voted “yes” for self-rule in the Donetsk region and 96% in Luhansk.
Russian state-run media carried images of throngs of people waiting to vote in what organizers claimed was a massive turnout: 75% of eligible voters in Donetsk and 81% in Luhansk.
The turnout figures, like the vote totals reported, couldn’t be verified independently, as there were no election monitors or supervisors outside of the militants who arranged and counted the votes.
The turnout figures appeared dubious, given the support for retaining a unified Ukraine expressed in local and international opinion surveys consistently showing more than 70% of voters even in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine opposed to seceding and joining Russia.
Western news agencies that covered the vote in multiple locales also reported widespread irregularities, including people marking multiple ballots and cars being intercepted by Ukrainian military checkpoints containing box loads of ballots already marked “yes.”
At a central Donetsk school visited by the Los Angeles Times, ballots were seen being issued to anyone who could produce an identity card showing a Donetsk area address. “Polling Point No. 3,” the only voting venue open in the administrative center of the sprawling city of a million, was guarded by men armed with guns and clubs and sporting the black-and-orange St. George’s military ribbon identifying them as supporters of union with Russia.
U.S. and European Union leaders had warned the breakaway regions against holding the referendum, and even Putin, seen as having instigated the regional unrest with his seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory earlier this year, had advised his supporters here to postpone the referendum to give time for diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
The EU was quick to respond with more sanctions on Russian officials accused of fomenting the pro-Russia rebels who occupy key government buildings in about a dozen towns and cities. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels added 13 more people Monday to their blacklist of Russian officials and others subject to visa bans and asset freezes for their roles in the ongoing unrest.
The names of those affected were not immediately released, but they bring to 61 the number of people on whom the EU has imposed sanctions since Russia’s internationally condemned annexation of Crimea.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters outside the Brussels gathering that the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums had “zero credibility in the eyes of the world” and violated every standard of free and fair elections.
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.