Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine voted Sunday in elections condemned by the international community as illegal and a violation of a cease-fire already teetering on the verge of collapse.
Results of the elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which have been under the armed insurgents' control since April, were foregone conclusions as fighters who seized power months ago were the only names on the ballots recognizable for most voters.
Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old militia leader who took over the proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in July after a Kremlin-installed fighter returned to Moscow, won more than 80% of the vote for prime minister against two relative unknowns, based on an exit poll reported by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency. Igor Plotnitsky, a 50-year-old Soviet Army veteran, was the only candidate with a public presence running for government leader of the neighboring Luhansk People's Republic and was expected to be declared the winner.
The two regions' leaders have issued conflicting forecasts of what will become of their territories once the battles against Ukrainian government forces are over, with some claiming they plan to unify with other regions of southeastern Ukraine in a new state to be called Novorossiya – the pre-revolutionary name for the area when it was conquered by czarist Russia in the 18th century.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin warned in an interview with Russia's RBK television that the separatists were creating irresolvable problems for their communities with the efforts to sever them from the rest of Ukraine.
"The situation will deteriorate no matter what anyone says," Klimkin said, alluding to the hardships already suffered by residents of the occupied areas who can no longer collect state pensions and benefits from Kiev, a capital their leaders say is now in a foreign country.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored the renegade vote as "a breach of the constitution and national law" of Ukraine and said it was likely to seriously undermine the Sept. 5 cease-fire signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and the separatists.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in interviews with Russian media last week that the Kremlin would recognize the newly elected premiers of the two republics. He said Moscow saw the votes as an opportunity to provide legitimate leadership for the breakaway regions and enhance their ability to negotiate a new relationship with the rest of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday to warn him that the elections in the east were illegitimate and in violation of the cease-fire agreement he had signed in Minsk, the Belarus capital. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was also in on the four-way call.
Merkel warned Putin that Western countries won't recognize the elected leaders or their proclaimed republics, and the Obama administration likewise put Russia on notice that the international community was watching its actions.
Washington cautioned Russia "against using any such illegitimate vote as a pretext to insert additional troops and military equipment into Ukraine, particularly in light of recent indications that the Russian military is moving forces back to the border along separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement on Friday.
But Russian officials have chosen to interpret a clause in the Minsk agreement calling for early local elections in the breakaway regions as authorization for the separatists to install governments independent of Ukraine.
A statement issued by the Kremlin after Merkel's call to Putin reiterated Moscow's position that recognizing the separatist votes should lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict that has taken nearly 4,000 lives, according to the latest U.N. report.
"The Russian side speaks out in favor of establishing a sustainable dialogue between the central Ukrainian authorities and the representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions which, beyond any doubt, would contribute to an overall stabilization of the situation," the statement said.
Didier Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, warned the separatists on Friday that their "so-called elections" were illegal and "counter to the letter and spirit of the Minsk Protocol."
The OSCE rejected calls from the separatists to send election monitors from the only European security alliance that includes both Russia and Ukraine and was the brokering agency for the Sept. 5 cease-fire.
The 57-nation alliance also has more than 100 observers permanently deployed across Ukraine to document incidents of irregular military formations and other violations of a continental security agreement penned after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission for Ukraine issues daily accounts of rogue military actions in the occupied eastern Ukraine regions as well as from embattled cities and towns still under the control of the Kiev government, like the strategic port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and the Kharkiv region surrounding Ukraine's second-largest city.
The European Union also weighed in to criticize Russian support for the rebel elections, with a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton saying the 28-nation alliance to which Ukraine aspires to join "deplored" the Kremlin's encouragement of further destabilizing actions.
The conflict in the eastern regions was sparked after a pro-European rebellion in Ukraine's western cities ousted Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich in February. Putin then sent troops to Ukraine's Crimea region to seize control of the peninsula that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
Separatists then began seizing government buildings and police stations in Donetsk and Luhansk, the traditional pro-Russia support bases for Yanukovich and his Moscow-allied Party of Regions. Leaders in Kiev and the West said the rebels were armed and instigated by Moscow.
Ukrainian voters a week ago held parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the separatists, who claimed the national Supreme Council has no authority over their sovereign states. While Poroshenko's political bloc ran on a platform advocating peaceful resolution of the conflict with the pro-Russia insurgents, the majority of newly-elected deputies have pledged to recover the occupied territory and seek to join the NATO western military alliance that Putin has cast as a threat to Russia's sphere of influence.
While no recognized international forum agreed to observe the separatists' elections, a contingent of European fringe party activists and Russian parliamentarians were on hand for the votes.
Separatist leaders had lamented that they had no access to voter registration lists for their regions. Journalists from Western news agencies reported incidents of voters from outside the area casting ballots, and Russian news media said supporters of independence for the separatists were allowed to cast ballots in major Russian cities as well as in the refugee-packed towns of Belgorod and Rostov, along the Ukrainian border.
Although the new government leaders and regional councils won't be recognized as legitimate by any country other than Russia, the defiant moves to elect them underscore the loss of Kiev's authority over the regions and the likelihood that the territorial division will persist. Similar frozen conflicts exist in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia, where Moscow sent troops in 2008, and in the Transdniestria region of Moldova where a Russia-backed rebellion has severed the area along Ukraine's southwest border for more than 20 years.