On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked separatists in the east Ukraine region of Donetsk to postpone a vote to secede from Ukraine.
But the pro-Russian rebels running the “Donetsk People’s Republic” say they will to hold the vote this weekend anyway.
That appears to place Putin in a predicament of his own making: After fomenting unrest in regions of Ukraine vital to Russia, the former KGB colonel is unable to rein in the insurgency that manifested.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much last week when he said that Moscow had “essentially lost influence over these people, because it will be impossible to convince them to lay down arms when there’s a direct threat to their lives.”
Furthermore, if the separatists wanted a fair referendum, they would not win: An overwhelming majority of east and west Ukraine want to remain a united country.
That is a recipe for disaster since the rebels would either have to flagrantly rig the vote, suffer a devastating defeat, or fight re-legitimized authorities.
“We will not, we cannot wait any longer,” an Afghan veteran and barricade guard in rebel-held Slovyansk told VICE News. “I thought I would never take up arms again, but now I will fight to the very end.”
VICE, echoing Peskov’s admission, notes that it is unclear “whether the Kremlin still has the power to reign in the pro-Russia forces in several cities in eastern Ukraine, including Luhansk, Donetsk, and Slovyansk, where state administration and security buildings have been seized.”
Meanwhile, the Ukraine’s military expanded its “anti-terrorism operation” earlier this week after at least 42 people were killed in clashes between pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians in the southwest port city of Odessa.
The grisly incident — dozens of pro-Russia protesters died when a building caught on fire — caused the largest number of casualties since about 100 people were killed in the Euromaidan protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukoych.
Julia Ioffe of the New Republic explains that Putin may be taking a step back from the brink, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t already led Ukraine over the edge by supporting the rebels up to this point.
“The events in Odessa may be a bellwether signifying that facts on the ground may have taken on a momentum of their own, one that even Putin can’t harness, let alone control,” Ioffe writes.
On the other hand, if Putin actually wants chaos in Ukraine — which would make a May 25 presidential vote impossible — then it would lead to civil war or an international conflict that would involve Russian troops (40,000 of which remain at Ukraine’s border).
In the latter case, the international community would hold the Russian president responsible and perhaps do something significant to protect Ukrainians and ensure that Putin stops destabilizing Ukraine.
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