MOSCOW — Russia stopped short Monday of outright recognition of the contentious referendums organized by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-speaking provinces of southeast Ukraine, instead using the results to intensify pressure for a negotiated autonomy for those provinces.
The separatist leader of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk wasted no time in announcing that his province wanted to join Russia, but the question seemed to be whether Moscow was interested.
Russia avoided any suggestion that it would react to the results with the same alacrity seen after the Crimean Peninsula referendum in March. Within hours of that vote, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia was annexing Crimea, part of southern Ukraine that had once been part of Russia.
This time, the Kremlin issued a statement saying only that it “respects the will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” and that the crisis should be resolved through dialogue between representatives of the easterners and the national government in Kiev.
The Russian government did not even say that it recognized the results of the voting, which authorities in Kiev and their Western supporters declared illegal from the start. A preliminary count from eastern Ukraine showed 89 percent of voters in the Donetsk region and 97.5 percent in neighboring Luhansk voted for greater autonomy.
Hours later, Denis Pushilin, leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” said the results showed that the people wanted to be part of Russia.
“We ask the Russian Federation to consider the issue of accession of the Donetsk People’s Republic to the Russian Federation,” he told a televised news conference. “The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world, regardless of ethnicity. For us, the history of Russia is our history.”
Pushilin then elaborated about that history, while echoing Moscow’s line that the current government in Kiev was composed of “Nazis.” He also said the Ukrainian military had left hundreds dead, although there was no evidence to support that estimate. Finally, he said the eastern regions would not hold the national presidential vote scheduled for May 25, creating the basis for another possible confrontation.
From Moscow, there was no direct reaction. But soon after Pushilin’s announcement, the Foreign Ministry issued another statement echoing what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said earlier in the day — that the crisis in Ukraine must be solved through dialogue between Kiev and the east.
In possibly the most important reaction, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch and the biggest employer in the industrial eastern regions, known together as Donbass, said his main aim was the kind of happiness that came through a strong economy and good jobs.
“I am strongly convinced that Donbass can be happy only in a united Ukraine,” said Akhmetov, who previously had kept his position ambiguous. “I am for a strong Donbass in a strong Ukraine.”
Analysts have maintained that while Crimea was long considered part of Russia, Moscow was not interested in the cost, in money or lives, not to mention the Western economic sanctions that would result, to annex the eastern provinces. Should Kiev attempt to end the separatist movement by force, however, Russia might still intervene militarily.
“The referendum is seen in Moscow not as a quasi-legitimate basis or reason to raise questions about secession from Ukraine,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign policy review. “Rather it is seen as an instrument to force other parties of the conflict to accept the People’s Republic as part of the negotiations.”
In another move to pressure Kiev, the head of Gazprom, the gas company controlled by the Russian government, said it would send Ukraine an advance bill Tuesday for deliveries in June. Gazprom’s chief executive, Alexei Miller, had previously said it would send the bill on May 16, but Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev demanded the bill be delivered immediately.
Russia has repeatedly increased the amount it says Ukraine owes, to around $20 billion, versus $2 billion in March. It has threatened to cut off the gas if Ukraine does not pay in advance, which could also affect deliveries to Western Europe.
Russia stated its position on the referendum as the European Union intensified efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine and to allow the May 25 presidential election to proceed.
The current chairman of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland, told EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels about a “road map” to a peaceful resolution.
“We have reached a pivotal moment in this crisis, both for Ukraine and for Europe,” Burk-halter said. “The window of opportunity is likely to be short.”
Burkhalter, who met with Putin last week, has been circulating among European capitals to discuss how mediation might work. The OSCE is the conduit because it includes both the EU’s member states and those of the former Soviet Union.