A pro-Russia insurgency in east Ukraine has decided to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy despite a call from Russian president Vladimir Putin to delay the vote.
The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic announced that it would hold the vote on Sunday as planned.
Mr Putin had urged them to delay the referendum, which many fear could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine.
While Mr Putin’s call to postpone the vote was seen as part of an effort to step back from confrontation with the west, he has fuelled tensions again by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.
Mr Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.
The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
The suggestion to postpone the referendum “came from a person who indeed cares for the people of the southeast” of Ukraine, Mr Pushilin said. “But we are the bullhorn of the people.”
The organisers have said the referendum was on whether to give the eastern regions more autonomy within Ukraine, but they have left open the possibility of using it to seek independence or annexation by Russia.
Mr Putin also declared that Russia has pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although Nato and Washington said they saw no signs of this.
Mr Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction”, but reiterated Russia’s long-standing contention that it should be preceded by constitutional reforms.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the election could only be considered legitimate if Ukraine stops its “punitive operations” in the east and begins a national dialogue on resolving the crisis.
A poll showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy.
The poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre found that 77 per cent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 per cent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 per cent.
The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 per cent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 per cent, and the east, where it is just 24 per cent.
Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as say its impact is positive.
The military exercise overseen by Mr Putin had been planned back in November, he said. He added that the exercises simulated dealing a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack, an unusually blunt statement that reflected tensions with the West over Ukraine.