KIEV, Ukraine — Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine decided to go ahead with a Sunday referendum on greater local powers, they said Thursday, defying a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote.
Putin had urged the pro-Russia sympathizers to delay the May 11 referendum in order to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”
Representatives from the council of the self-declared Donetsk’s People’s Republic and separatists from Luhansk told reporters they have voted to press ahead with the referendum to ask eastern Ukrainian residents living there if they want sovereignty from Kiev.
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow or Kiev.
Asked about Putin’s plea on Wednesday as pressure mounts to defuse the escalating Ukrainian crisis, Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the comments were “surprising” but he respected him.
Sunday’s referendum would be an echo to events in March, when voters in Crimea approved a controversial ballot to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, which subsequently annexed the Black Sea peninsula. The event escalated the turmoil rocking the country.
The separatists have defied other issues in the past — an international pact reached among Russia, Ukraine and its Western allies in Geneva, Switzerland, last month that called for the rebels to disarm and vacate buildings seized in the volatile region has not yet materialized.
In what seemed to signal a softening in Moscow’s attitude toward Kiev, Putin also said Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for this month were “a step in the right direction.”
But he also voiced caution.
“But it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place,” Putin added, according to a Kremlin transcript following his meeting with the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Putin also said that direct talks between Kiev authorities and representatives of the pro-Russian sympathizers in southeast Ukraine were key to settling the escalating crisis.
Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Putin’s comments on the referendum as “hot air.”
Meanwhile, NATO hasn’t seen “any signs” that Russia is withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s border, the military alliance’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted Wednesday.
He reiterated that at a press conference in the Polish capital Thursday.
“So far we haven’t seen any indications that they are pulling back their troops. Let me assure you that if we get visible evidence that they are actually pulling back their troops, I would be the very first to welcome it,” Rasmussen said.
“That’s what we have continued to urge the Russians to do — to de-escalate the situation, pull back their troops, live up to their international obligations.”
White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest also told reporters Wednesday that “there is not evidence to date that there has been a meaningful and transparent withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border.”
The comments came after Putin said Wednesday that Russian forces are “now not on the Ukrainian border but are carrying out their regular exercises at the test grounds.”
Kiev, its neighbors and Western governments have voiced alarm over what NATO estimates are around 40,000 Russian troops massed at various locations along the Ukrainian border. Moscow has repeatedly said they are only carrying out exercises.
The state-run ITAR-Tass news agency cited Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov as saying Thursday that Ukraine has deployed a 15,000-strong military force near Russia’s borders. He reiterated Putin’s comments that Russia had pulled back from the border and said Moscow’s defense minister had informed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about this in a phone conversation.
As the tensions rise, violence has escalated on the ground.
Kiev last week launched its biggest military campaign yet to drive out pro-Russian militants who have reportedly taken over numerous public buildings in towns across southeast Ukraine.
Five pro-Russian activists were killed overnight Wednesday when Ukrainian forces attacked barricades on the outskirts of Mariupol, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russian camp said.
Elsewhere in the volatile Donetsk region, an uneasy standoff continued between the Ukrainian military and the separatists.
Both sides clashed at the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk on Monday. Ukraine’s security services said 30 “heavily armed” militants had been killed in recent days as part of the “anti-terrorist” operation in the area.
Kiev and many in the West believe the separatists are backed by Moscow and fear that Putin is fomenting trouble to increase his influence in the region.
Moscow says that right-wing, ultranationalist groups are behind the violence in Ukraine and that it has no direct influence over the pro-Russian groups.
The government in Kiev is bracing for further unrest in the run-up to Friday’s national holiday to commemorate the end of World War II.
In a television address, Yatsenyuk urged Ukrainians not to take part in “mass actions” and not to respond to provocations.
“The demand is to restrain from any actions which will be used by Ukraine’s enemies in the information war against our country,” he said.
Kiev has said it was stepping up security measures ahead of the holiday.
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