WASHINGTON/DONETSK, UKRAINE – The United States on Tuesday denounced moves by pro-Russian separatist groups in eastern Ukraine to organize what it called a “bogus” referendum, saying it was a new bid by Moscow to annex more territory.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry slammed the efforts to hold a referendum on May 11 in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which he said mirrored what happened with Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in March.
“This is really the Crimea playbook all over again, and no civilized nation is going to recognize the results of such a bogus effort,” Kerry told reporters.
“We flatly reject this illegal effort to further divide Ukraine,” he said after meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“We are not going to sit idly by while Russian elements fan the flames of instability instead of fulfilling the commitments that we made,” he added, insisting that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “calling all the shots.”
Kiev and its Western backers believe Moscow is trying to ensure the referendum goes ahead in a bid to sow chaos ahead of nationwide presidential elections two weeks later.
The West considers the May 25 presidential elections crucial to restoring legitimacy to the government of the former Soviet republic, after interim leaders were installed by the parliament when pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of widespread pro-democracy protests.
But in a testy hearing, Republican lawmakers angrily denounced the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to provide stepped-up military assistance to the interim leaders in Kiev.
Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland came under fire from her longtime friend Republican Sen. John McCain, when he also repeatedly pressed her on whether tougher U.S. sanctions would be unleashed against Moscow.
Nuland said the administration was constantly evaluating the events on the ground.
“So the answer is that you can’t tell me what specific action Russia would take in order to trigger sanctions, outside of the actual elections being disrupted themselves. You are not answering the question, madam Secretary,” McCain shot back.
“May I express my deep disappointment on your failure to answer the questions. I had hoped for better as a witness when I strongly supported your nomination for your present position.”
Washington and the EU have already sanctioned dozens of Russians and Ukrainians blamed for fueling the instability in Ukraine. But they have so far held off from imposing more biting sanctions against the key banking, mining and energy sectors.
Nuland said earlier that the May 25 elections will be “the most pluralistic election that there has ever been in Ukraine” with some parties fielding more than one candidate after splits.
“And far more pluralistic than anything that’s been seen in Russia.”
But she voiced concerns about whether the people in eastern Ukraine would “have the chance to vote for their candidate” given tensions on the ground with pro-Russia militias controlling several towns.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was expected to send in 1,000 observers and the U.S. was supporting a further 3,000 observers, she told the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also warned that “if Russia takes the next step” to move into eastern Ukraine and annex it as it did in March with Crimea, “harsh EU and U.S. sanctions will follow.”
Ashton, meanwhile, renewed calls for Russia to help end “illegal actions by armed separatist groups.”
“Any further steps that destabilize the situation in Ukraine would lead to additional and far-reaching consequences for our relations in a broad range of areas,” she warned.
EU foreign ministers were to meet again May 12, Ashton said, to look at all the possibilities for stopping the violence.
Putin has 40,000 troops on the border with Ukraine but has so far held off ordering an invasion to “protect” the Russian-speaking population, though Moscow claims to be receiving “thousands” of calls for help from eastern Ukraine.
In the country’s east, pro-Russia militia holding the Ukrainian city of Slovyansk came under further pressure Tuesday from advancing government troops, but militants acted with impunity elsewhere in the turbulent region.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia met Tuesday, but their open disagreements did nothing to suggest a diplomatic solution was near.
Diplomacy was to be taken up again on Wednesday during a meeting in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE. Russia and the West have expressed a desire for the OSCE to play a greater role in defusing the tensions in Ukraine.
Ukrainian military operations that began Monday to expunge pro-Russia forces from the city of Slovyansk were the interim government’s most ambitious effort so far to quell weeks of unrest in the east.
Four government troops and 30 militants were killed in the gunbattles, Ukraine’s interior minister said Tuesday. The pro-Russia militia said 10 people were killed, including civilians. There was no immediate way to reconcile the figures.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov gave the death toll on his Facebook page Tuesday, adding that 20 government troops were also injured during fighting in Slovyansk. He said about 800 pro-Russia forces in and around Slovyansk used large-caliber weapons and mortars Monday.
By Tuesday morning, Ukrainian forces had taken hold of a key checkpoint north of the city, dealing a blow to insurgent lines of communication.
In Donetsk, a major city 120 km (75 miles) south of Slovyansk, the airport was closed during the day to international flights following a government order but reopened later.
In the afternoon, about 30 pro-Russia militants armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers surrounded an Interior Ministry base in Donetsk, demanding that the troops inside not join any government operations against pro-Russia forces. While it was unclear whether they would attack, besieging the base was an uptick in their offensive.
In the southwest, Kiev authorities also attempted to reassert control over the region around Odessa, a major Black Sea port, by appointing a new governor on Tuesday.
Kiev authorities announced Tuesday they were firing the acting governor and replacing him with a member of parliament, Ihor Palytsya. Odessa’s police chief was also fired over the weekend.
Concern that Odessa could be the next region to fall grew after 46 people died Friday, many in a building fire, after a pro-Ukraine march in Odessa turned into a melee of fighting. Two days later, 67 people detained in the rioting were released by police under pressure from an angry crowd.