Separatists in two eastern Ukrainian regions said they will go forward with a weekend referendum seeking more independence from Kiev, despite calls, even from Russian President Vladimir Putin, to delay the vote.
Denis Pushilin, who heads the so-called Donetsk People's Republic election commission, said that though Putin's objections "came from a person who indeed cares for the people of the southeast," the Donetsk leadership would ignore his request because "we are the bullhorn of the people."
This last claim is questionable at best, as demonstrated by a Pew poll published today that shows that most Ukrainians (not including Crimeans) are in favor of a unified country. Per the poll, 77 percent of Ukrainians want the country to remain united, including 93 percent of those residing in the west and a surprisingly-high 70 percent of those residing in the east. That figure drops slightly when looking at eastern Russian speakers — but still remains a majority, with 58 percent preferring a united country.
According to eastern leaders, the vote would be about independence from the rest of Ukraine, rather than an attempt to join Russia:
#Donetsk separatist Pushilin, some minutes ago, on referendum: "It's going to happen. And there's going to be only one question..." (1/2)— James Novogrod (@JamieNBCNews) May 8, 2014
#Donetsk separatist Pushilin said the "one question" will be: "whether you support the independence of the Donetsk republic." (2/2)— James Novogrod (@JamieNBCNews) May 8, 2014
But the option to later vote on joining Russia remains on the table.
The anti-government Army of Southeast group in Luhansk, another region in east Ukraine, also said that it would participate in the referendum.
Yesterday, leaders saw Putin's call to postpone the vote as a sign that military action in Ukraine was not an option for Russia, a view bolstered by Russian claims that they would pull their troops off the Ukrainian border. Others saw it as a strategic way to distance Moscow from the troubles in Ukraine, which Russia has insisted is an internal issue.
Now the #Donetsk leaders can say 'Putin doesn't control us' & Putin can say 'I don't control them'. Everyone wins.— David Blair (@davidblairdt) May 8, 2014
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said that Putin's words were nothing but "hot air," and Washington said he should have called for the vote to be cancelled, not just delayed. Adding to suspicion that Putin's statements aren't entirely genuine are reports from NATO and the Pentagon that the Kremlin does not appear to have withdrawn troops from the border as they claimed. Putin's ameliorative comments also had the welcome effect of strengthening the Russian stock market, at least briefly.
The referendum will take place two weeks ahead of a vote in Kiev to elect a permanent replacement for ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and his cabinet.