Over the weekend, citizens in Donetsk and Luhansk overwhelmingly voted in favor of autonomy and integration with Russia. It’s just the latest step in dividing Ukraine in two.


Moscow reacts cautiously to southeast Ukraine referendums. Photo: Reuters

Did Russia play a role in orchestrating the referendums on self-rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, held on Sunday, May 11? This is a very tricky question that requires a thorough analysis.

As the Russian media reported, the referendums in which the local population voted overwhelmingly in favor of sovereignty have met with a measured response from the Kremlin, which recognized the implications of the vote, yet made a renewed call for dialogue between the regions and the caretaker government in Kiev.

Moscow “respects the will of the populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” according to a public statement released by the press service of the President of Russia on Monday.

Meanwhile, the results of the two hastily arranged referendums, in which 90 percent and 96 percent respectively voted for sovereignty in Donetsk and Luhansk, were dismissed by the West as illegitimate. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov described the vote as a "farce” and said it would “have no legal consequences except criminal responsibility for its organizers."

On Monday, the two regions made a formal request to Russia to consider their incorporation into the Russian Federation. Moscow made no immediate response to the request.

Who is behind the referendums?

While there are certainly some ties between the Ukrainian pro-autonomy groups and Russia, the pro-autonomy groups also have their own agenda and support. So while the Kremlin was supportive of these groups advocating for self-rule, they are not the official arm of the Kremlin and are not totally controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. After all, when Putin suggested that the referendum ought to be postponed, these pro-autonomy groups did not postpone it. 

So, this move leaves room for only speculation, not real facts or any real proof about the Kremlin’s involvement in organizing the referendum.

Yet, the key questions remain unanswered: What does the fact that the seekers of autonomy ignored Putin's call to postpone the referendum indicate? Does it mean that Moscow has no influence in Eastern Ukraine and the pro-autonomy leaders are not Russian agents, or it's a behind-the-scenes game of the Kremlin?

Supporters of Putin will say that it was a clever ploy by Putin to distance himself from the Ukrainian pro-autonomy groups. Critics will say it proves that Putin has no influence. It is very difficult to say with any degree of certainty either way. The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. 

Putin has tremendous influence with the pro-autonomy leaders, yet does not control them. The pro-autonomy groups have their own agenda. While many have argued that this conflict is a proxy conflict with Russia controlling the leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk and the West controlling the government in Kiev, the truth is that while outside interests do have a lot of influence in Ukraine, neither Russia nor the West has total influence over either side. This is one reason the Geneva Accords failed so quickly.

To what extent will the referendums fuel tensions in the region?

Ukraine is in the midst of a civil war. The tensions are already high. The Donbass region was already effectively beginning to operate like a de facto state. The Ukrainian military has had limited success in defeating the pro-autonomy groups, and often the supporters of autonomy return to reclaim government building as soon as a military occupation is over. 

The question is whether there is a will to fight a long and bloody civil war. The tragic events in Odessa were a sobering reminder of how quickly events can spiral out of control and lead to massive loss of life.

Ultimately, this referendum will continue to be called illegitimate by the West and will be recognized as legitimate by Russia. So, in this respect, nothing seems to have changed. However, if the new leadership invites Russian troops to guarantee their security and Putin agrees to send those troops, then the situation will become even more inflamed.

Moreover, if the Ukrainian military turns to private mercenaries to continue the anti-terrorist campaign in Ukraine, the situation will also become more inflamed.

The next referendum will be even more inflammatory as Southeastern Ukraine must decide whether or not to join Russia. This referendum could really fuel the tensions even further.


The referendum in the Eastern Ukraine divided the nation. Photo: RIA Novosti

Ukraine, a nation split in two

Ukraine needs to develop a new constitution and rebuild the country. This is the time to ask fundamental questions about the role of the state and how much power it should have. Furthermore, Ukraine should really adopt a federal system. It has such deep divisions that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.

Russia and the West can support Eastern Ukraine or artificially maintain its status as a de facto state. Eastern Ukraine will not be able to survive as a state without their support. If this occurs, Ukraine would no longer be a viable state. Most dangerously, we would then see a new “Iron Curtain” separating East and West in Ukraine.

We are already seeing the beginning of this, where Ukraine has cut off all support for Crimea and cut off its water supplies. This has devastated the crops and farmers will not be able to harvest enough crops. Russia will have to massively aid the Crimean people to stave off starvation. Russia may retaliate and cut off Ukraine's gas supply, which will have a profound effect not only on Ukraine during this winter, but also on Western Europe, as the majority of Europe's gas imports go through Ukraine.

The United States and Western Europe are readying more sanctions against Russia over the most recent events. However, one has to wonder what this will accomplish. The sanctions will not change Russian behavior, and will merely encourage Russia to respond in kind, which will hurt Western companies as well as individuals. It is time to truly start a new discussion over the future of Ukraine, and begin to totally rebuild the state.

However, this is not likely to occur. Instead, the West will push for presidential elections to be held on May 25. Eastern Ukraine will either boycott the elections or maintain that they are now an independent state and claim that the president of Ukraine won't have any legitimacy in Eastern Ukraine. This will lead to more conflict, which could lead to more fighting and even the start of a civil war. With less than two weeks to go until the May 25 elections, it’s time for statesmen and diplomats to make a final effort to save Ukraine.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.