Separatists in the east of Ukraine called for annexation by neighboring Russia on Monday, a day after staging referendums in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that Westerns countries and authorities in Kiev, the capital, denounced as illegal.
After announcing the results of the vote, Denis Pushilin, a leader of Donetsk’s separatist movement, said the region was an independent state and would appeal to join the Russian Federation. “The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world,” he said. “Based on the will of the people and on the restoration of a historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the absorption of the Donetsk People’s Republic into the Russian Federation.
According to the separatists, 75 percent of Donetsk’s residents turned out to vote on Sunday, with more than 80 percent voting in favor of secession. In Luhansk, activists claimed more than 96 percent did.
There was no way to verify the results although they defied earlier opinion polls which found support for federalization no higher than 25 percent across the southeast of Ukraine which is home to most of the country’s ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
Various media outlets also reported voting irregularities, including children casting ballots and people voting multiple times.
Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, alleged on Twitter that the figures were likely to be fake. “No way of even knowing official turnout,” he wrote Sunday night.
European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said that European countries wouldn’t recognize the referendums. “They are illegal, illegitimate and not credible.”
Despite calling on the separatists to postpone the referendums last week, and stopping short of endorsing their appeal for annexation, Russia said on Monday it does respect the “expression of the people’s will” in Donetsk and Luhansk. It urged Western countries to “understand that without recognizing the inner nature of the deep Ukrainian conflict it will be impossible to solve it.”
Russia invaded Ukraine’s territory in March and annexed the Crimea after its residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia in a referendum. The peninsula had belonged to Ukraine since 1954 when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
Russia also protects breakaways regions in the former Soviet republics Georgia and Moldova but these have barely an eight of the population of Donetsk and Luhansk combined.
What is today Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast was largely conquered by Russia in the late eighteenth century. Small parts of it, as well as the nearby region of Luhansk, had been conquered earlier.
In 1922, both regions were added to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union. According to the most recent census in 2001, some 39 percent of Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s residents are ethnic Russians.
Losing the two regions, which are home to most of Ukraine’s heavy industries and account for more than 15 percent of its total gross domestic product, would be a crippling blow to a country that is on the verge of bankruptcy six months into a political crisis that began when its former president, Viktor Yanukovich, suddenly pulled out of an association and trade agreement with the European Union in November. Yanukovich was deposed in February and replaced by an interim government that signed the association treaty the next month.