Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said Thursday they would go ahead with a referendum on secession set for Sunday, defying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call to postpone it and dashing hopes of dialogue with the government in Kiev. Western capitals had already been skeptical of Mr. Putin’s surprise appeal Wednesday, a change of tone that included a claim that Russian troops had pulled back from the border. With the decision by separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions at the heart of the insurgency, the conflict again appeared to be escalating. (Follow the latest updates on the crisis in Ukraine.) In Kiev, the Foreign Ministry said the decisions confirmed fears that Moscow was just trying “to whitewash its aggression in the eyes of the international community” by appearing to endorse dialogue. Ukrainian officials rejected Moscow’s demands that they end their military operation in eastern Ukraine and negotiate with the rebels.
Kiev and its Western allies say the separatists are led by Russian agents and are part of Moscow’s plan to undermine the pro-Western government, which took power in late Feburary after a Moscow ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled by months of street protests centered in the capital.
Previous diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have failed, often buying time for Russia and its allies to strengthen their position on the ground.
The latest back-and-forth could be an effort by the Kremlin to bolster its claim that it doesn’t control the separatists, while at the same time easing the pressure on Moscow to send troops to back them in the event the referendum passes.