‘Victory’ for pro-Russian separatists threatens to push Ukraine to the brink of civil war.
According to the organisers of eastern Ukraine’s referendums on local autonomy on Sunday, the people, by a landslide majority, chose self-rule. But the pro-Russian separatists’ claims of high voter turnout and margin of victory, in a vote decried by Kiev and the West as a sham, have been undermined by the absence of independent monitors and reports of polling irregularities. In any event, the consequences of the referendums remain unclear, as they are illegal under Ukrainian law and Russia has not yet moved to annex another chunk of its neighbour’s territory, as it did in Crimea. Yet, the ballots are likely to embolden pro-Moscow separatist groups, deepening fears that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will encourage these proxies to disrupt the May 25 presidential election.
Thus far, the Kremlin’s response to the referendums has been ambiguous. While it has said that it “respects the will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, it also indicated that “mediation efforts” between the separatists and Kiev were welcome. Given that last week, Putin urged the separatists to postpone the referendums — which they worryingly failed to heed — and offered to withdraw Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, this could signal his intention of avoiding a full-fledged invasion that would force the West into imposing tougher economic sanctions. After all, Putin has achieved most of his goals through this crisis without conceding very much, with the annexation of Crimea having been accepted, Western opprobrium finding limited expression and his domestic popularity soaring.
But the gathering undercurrent of violence that accompanied the referendums, the caches of weapons concentrated in the hands of militants and the possibility that Russia will keep up a proxy war against Ukraine, threatens to destabilise Kiev and usher in a bloody civil war that could spin out of control. Talks between Ukrainian politicians and civil groups under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe — a little-known body that has emerged as an unlikely neutral broker — are to take place today, and the German foreign minister is in Ukraine to launch the dialogue. Kiev will perhaps have to devolve a degree of power to these regions. But unless the separatists can be persuaded to let the presidential election proceed without incident, the negotiations will mean little.