DONETSK, Ukraine — Russia gave its backing Monday to a contentious election held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, setting the stage for renewed diplomatic tensions with the West.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said Sunday's vote in Donetsk and Luhansk gave elected representatives the authority to restore stability in regions unsettled by an armed separatist insurgency.
Plans for the vote had been sharply criticized by the EU and the U.S., which said it violated Ukrainian law and undermined a two-month old cease-fire deal. In the vote, residents in Donetsk and Luhansk were choosing legislators and executives.
Still reeling from Russia's annexation of its Crimean Peninsula in March, Ukraine accuses Moscow of undermining its sovereignty. Russia appeared to hint in its statement, however, that it would stop short of supporting outright independence for the Donbass, as Ukraine's heavily industrial eastern regions are known collectively.
"In view of the elections, it is extremely important to take active steps toward promoting sustained dialogue between central Ukrainian authorities and the representatives of the Donbass," the Russian statement said.
Vote results unveiled Monday showed Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader in Donetsk, claiming an easy victory. The head of the separatists in Luhansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, won by a similarly large margin.
The head of the rebel election body in Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, said inescapable conclusions needed to be drawn from Sunday's polls.
"Kiev has to come to terms with the idea that Donbass is not part of Ukraine," he said. "Whether they will recognize the result of our vote or not is Kiev's problem."
Despite the cease-fire deal reached September in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, fighting rages daily between government troops and rebel forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
That agreement, which was signed by rebel leaders, and Ukrainian and Russian officials, envisioned local elections being held across the whole of the east, but under Ukrainian law.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Monday that because the elections weren't carried out in accordance with Ukrainian law they "can have no legal relevance" and will deepen the crisis.
Seibert said that given the multiple shortcomings of the vote, "it is all the more incomprehensible that there are official Russian voices either respecting or recognizing these so-called elections."
Russia's endorsement of the vote contradicts efforts to implement the Minsk agreement, Seibert said.
The task of monitoring the fragile state of the cease-fire has fallen to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has in recent weeks deployed drones in the region to facilitate its mission.
The OSCE said in statement a drone flying over a rebel-controlled area came under aircraft gunfire Sunday, but that the aircraft wasn't hit.
In a separate incident, an OSCE drone was subjected to signal jamming Wednesday in a zone near the village of Sartana, which is controlled by government troops.
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Geir Moulson in Berlin and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.