MOSCOW — People in two regions of restive eastern Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — will vote on Sunday on declaring sovereignty. The plebiscites, hastily arranged by pro-Russia insurgents who have seized government buildings over the past month, are denounced both by the central government in Kiev and the West, and it is unclear whether they will be recognized by Moscow in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for the vote to be postponed. Issues of legitimacy aside, the vote is sure to add to tensions in an area already gripped by rebellion and sporadic clashes between militants and Ukrainian forces.
HOW IT STARTED
After Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-friendly Ukrainian president, was toppled in February following months of protests in the capital, many people in eastern and southern Ukraine strongly resented the authorities who took over. The majority in that sprawling swath of the country speak Russian as their mother tongue and many denounced the new government as nationalists — and even fascists — who would suppress the Russian-speakers. The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea held a referendum on secession less than a month after Yanukovych's ouster, and Russia annexed Crimea days later. In April, insurgents calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic began seizing police stations and government buildings in that region, setting up checkpoints and claiming control of several cities.
THE BALLOT ISSUE
The ballot asks if voters approve establishment of sovereign and independent "people's republics." However, the ultimate goal is not clear. Organizers in Donetsk say that, in the event of a "yes" vote, they will decide later if they want to be independent, seek to become part of Russia, or agree to stay in Ukraine but with significantly greater autonomy.
Kiev and the West claim that Russia is fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, either with the goal of finding a pretext for invading and seizing the region, or of destabilizing Ukraine in order to force it to abandon aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. Russia denies that it has agents on the ground in the east. However, it clearly has strong influence, as witnessed by its success in obtaining the release of OSCE military observers who were taken hostage by militants in the city of Slovyansk, and its adamant criticism of Ukraine's acting government wreinforces the insurgents' resistance.
Putin's call on Wednesday for the referendum to be postponed may have been intended to portray Russia as seeking de-escalation of the crisis. The insurgents' rejection of the call the next day promotes the view that they are not pawns of Moscow, but a genuine people's movement rising up against a purported threat of genocide.
Recent poll data show a strong majority in the east favor remaining part of Ukraine, but that doesn't necessarily prefigure a "no" vote on a "people's republic." Many who were on the fence may have been swayed by last week's grisly confrontation in Odessa, where dozens of pro-Russians died when the building where they took shelter was firebombed by government backers. Although Odessa is far away from the referendum regions, the violence reinforced the view of the government side as brutal and vengeful. In any case, sovereignty opponents may choose to sit out the vote because of the intimidating atmosphere. And without international oversight, the vote count's accuracy will be highly debatable.
If the vote is "yes" and the insurgents push for incorporation into Russia, Moscow will face a dilemma. U.S. and EU sanctions already appear to be affecting the economy. Russia would be leery of inducing more such punishment by annexing the regions. It would also be logistically more challenging: Crimea housed a large Russian military contingent at the Black Sea Fleet base and reinforcements were brought in quickly before Ukraine could respond. But Ukrainian forces are already fighting in the east.
However, Putin's assertion of Russia's alleged right to reclaim territories that it lost through historical "injustices," which he cited in justifying the annexation of Crimea, could end up making Russia feel obliged to add Luhansk and Donetsk to its territory.