Russia indicated it “respects” the results of two disputed referendums in eastern Ukraine, which separatists said backed independence, while the European Union added companies to its list of sanctions for the first time.
Russia praised the high turnout in yesterday’s ballots, according to a statement e-mailed today by President Vladimir Putin’s press service. The U.S. and the EU deem the votes illegal and the government in Kiev called them a “farce.” Donetsk showed 90 percent backing for the breakaway plan, while in Luhansk, 94 percent to 98 percent supported autonomy with turnout at 75 percent, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti reported.
Russia “assumes that the practical implementation of the referendums will be realized in a civilized manner, without any relapses of violence,” according to the Kremlin’s statement.
The votes went ahead amid violent clashes between pro- Russian rebels and government troops, who are trying to wrest back control of the nation’s eastern provinces before May 25 presidential elections. Ukraine and its allies accuse Putin of stoking the unrest, which is threatening to rip the former Soviet republic apart. The U.S. and the EU are threatening to tighten sanctions to target Russian industries.
The ruble, which has weakened 6.5 percent against the dollar this year, was down 0.4 percent as of 4:01 p.m. in Moscow, while the Micex Index of stocks rose 0.4 percent, paring its 2014 decline to 8.4 percent. Ukraine’s hryvnia fell 1.2 percent, extending this year’s slide to 30.1 percent.
The referendums echo a similar vote that preceded Putin’s seizure of Crimea in March. A month earlier, his ally in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in a popular uprising. Growing tension in eastern Ukraine reflects concern Russia may be planning another land grab.
The votes are “inspired by Russia’s leaders to completely destabilize Ukraine, undermine presidential elections and overthrow Ukraine’s authorities,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said on parliament’s website. “This propagandistic farce will have no legal impact apart from criminal responsibility for those who organized it.”
NATO says that there are about 40,000 Russian troops near the border. There’s no sign Putin is fulfilling a pledge to withdraw them, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a television interview broadcast yesterday.
At a meeting today in Brussels, EU foreign ministers added two companies and 13 people to its sanctions list. The names will be released later.
They also vowed to accelerate preparations for broad economic sanctions against Russia should it disrupt Ukraine’s election, pressing the Kremlin to back down in the biggest standoff since the Cold War. Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja called yesterday’s ballots “highly manipulated.”
“These attempts at referendums have zero credibility in the eyes of the world,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters before the meeting. “It’s very important for us to demonstrate that we are ready for that third tier of sanctions, far-reaching sanctions, depending on Russia’s attitude toward the elections on May 25.”
After yesterday’s vote, the election won’t take place in Luhansk, Vasiliy Nikitin, press secretary for the rebel’s South- Eastern Army, was cited by Interfax as saying.
Further sanctions against Russia, the main supplier of natural gas to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines, risk undermining the economies of some member nations. France’s government said today that it will deliver Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia as planned, rejecting requests from its European and U.S. allies to cancel the sale to punish Russia.
“We all understand that this phase is very sensitive,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. “This is really not so easy. I’d like to reiterate that the second phase is by far not yet exhausted.”
The EU will decide today to expand the existing stage-two penalties, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said, without elaborating.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that a national dialogue to resolve Ukraine’s crisis must begin “as soon as possible.” Russia would welcome any efforts, including mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to facilitate dialogue, the Kremlin said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said national reconciliation talks will start May 14, though it’s unclear who’ll take part. Two months of clashes in the Donetsk region have left 40 people dead and 245 hospitalized, the Unian news service reported today, citing the health-care department of the governor office.
The referendums underscore a divide between a minority community identifying with Russian heritage and other Ukrainians who want the country to stay whole and bolster ties with the EU.
The central electoral commission in Kiev said the ballots contradicted the Constitution. Polling stations were poorly organized, there were no official observers and no procedures for counting, it said today in an e-mailed statement.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken, and 93 percent in the west, wanted the country to remain unified within current borders.
In Donetsk, Peter Bobrovsky, an unemployed man, said he was voting for autonomy because “the authorities in Kiev hate us.”
“I want to live in Russia, speak Russian,” he said. “Now we will be free and we will join Russia. And Ukraine can go to the West, but without us.”
Also in Donetsk, Ruslan Khalikov, a 27-year-old graduate student, said he wouldn’t take part because the vote is “stupid” and illegitimate.
“Somebody printed some papers with some questions -- so what?” he said. “I can hold the same referendum in my yard with my friends.”