Ukraine Deal Unravels?

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Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, east Ukraine.

Efforts to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis seemed to have unraveled Thursday, as Western officials openly doubted if Russian troops had pulled back and pro-Russian separatists vow to go forward with a referendum on autonomy.

Both the United States and NATO say they have seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine-Russia border, despite Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Wednesday announcement he had pulled back troops.

A Twitter war broke out between NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumussen and the Russian Foreign Ministry, after the Western leader used the social media network to voice is doubts about the Russian withdrawal.

In a post that has since been deleted, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted back that “those with a blind eye” should read Putin’s statement. Rasumussen fired back, insisting that no indication of a pullback of Russian troops has taken place.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said Russia was heading down a “dangerous and irresponsible path” and the situation in Ukraine was “extremely combustible.”

Flanked by a kalashnikov-bearing supporters, Russian separatist leader Denis Pushilin declared a referendum scheduled for this Sunday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk would go on as planned, despite calls from Putin to delay the vote.

Pro-Russian separatist leader Pushilin announces a referendum in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine will go on this Sunday.

Pro-Russian separatist leader Pushilin announces a referendum in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine will go on this Sunday.

“Civil war has already begun,” Pushilin told reporters. “The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process.”

Sunday’s vote has become seen as a vital step by many in Ukraine’s industrial east, fired up over what the rebels, and Moscow, call the “fascist” government in Kiev that took over after street protests ousted a pro-Moscow president in February.

“You have no idea how many armed people there are in Donetsk right now,” Roman Lyagin, the 33-year-old head of the self-proclaimed republic’s election commission, told Reuters at his headquarters behind barricades of tires and car bumpers in the occupied regional administration in Donetsk.

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk

“There is no man who can move this referendum,” he said.

Ballots, printed in Donetsk, have been distributed across the rebel zone, smuggled through Ukrainian army checkpoints. Lyagin says more than three million people are eligible to vote.

Artyom, a rebel at a roadblock in the rebel-held eastern town of Slaviansk, praised the referendum decision as “great news,” adding, “We need to have our say.”

While many Russian speakers in Ukraine fear discrimination under the new leadership, quite how many support the separatists, many of whom say their ultimate aim is to join Russia, is not so clear. Recent opinion polls say a majority wish to remain within Ukraine, but with a far greater degree of autonomy.

Maria Lipman

Maria Lipman

Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Center think-tank in Moscow, told Reuters Putin would have known that his request for the referendum to be postponed would be rebuffed.

“But this can be used to show that the people in Ukraine’s east are not Russians, take no orders from Russia, that Russia exercises no control over them because they only do what they want to do,” she said.

“He has also distanced Russia from the referendum, which has a completely unclear status and will not be recognized by the West.”

Russia added to the tensions Thursday by test-firing several ballistic missiles. Putin oversaw the launch of a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile along with several shorter-range missiles from submarines.

“Other military manoeuvres involved the launch from an undisclosed location in western Russia of air-to-surface rockets by Tu-95 strategic bombers, and the entry into the English Channel of a Northern Fleet armada led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov,” reports AFP.

Putin oversees a military exercise on Thursday.

Putin oversees a military exercise on Thursday.

The military exercises come ahead of Russia’s commemoration on Friday of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. While Putin stressed the events were scheduled last November and have nothing to do with the current crisis in the Ukraine, many questioned why they were not cancelled due to the tensions.

Russia has used the build-up to Friday’s anniversary to rachet up anti-nazi rhetoric, tying the pro-Western government in Ukraine to “fascists.”

French president Francois Hollande said Thursday that despite their differences, Putin is welcome to attend D-Day ceremonies in France this coming June, reports AFP.

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