Russian President Vladimir Putin’s humble request that pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine postpone their May 11 secession referendum appears to have had no effect. Thursday, the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a loose grouping of rebels in the industrial city of Donetsk and surrounding towns of the Donbas region, respectfully declined.
“It is not our decision but the Donbas people’s,” said Andrei Purgin, a member of the group’s leadership. “The people of Donbas now have a chance to perform a heroic feat, and we have no right to deprive them of that chance.”
The referendum, and a similar one planned in the neighboring region of Lugansk, was a ridiculous idea from the start. The rebels do not have the skills, the numbers or the control necessary to organize a real vote. All they have managed to do is to print some highly ornamented ballots. With the Ukrainian military, police and national guard conducting a bumbling “anti-terrorist operation” in the rebellious regions, not even the semblance of peaceful balloting is feasible. Russia recognized the farcical secession referendum in Crimea in April, because a high degree of local support was there for all to see. In Donetsk and Lugansk, the referendum is such a bad idea that even Russia won’t touch it with a barge pole.
So when Putin, after talks with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, asked for a postponement of the vote, he only moved a pawn.
Whether or not the request was for real, or if Putin communicated to the rebels behind the scenes that he was just playing a game with the West, the referendum is not important. Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of “trading in thin air”: “No referendum was planned for the 11th in Ukraine. If Russia-supported terrorists and separatists have received orders to postpone something that wasn’t planned, it’s only a matter of their internal wrangling.”