KIEV, Ukraine (AFP) – EU foreign policy chiefs blasted Moscow’s recognition of separatist elections in Ukraine on Monday, saying the polls, which sought to put a legal veneer on the bloody pro-Russian rebellion, violated a peace agreement.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the elections went “against the letter and spirit” of an internationally brokered truce deal in September that was meant to halt the war in eastern Ukraine.
Steinmeier urged Russia to respect “the unity of Ukraine.”
“We will judge Russia and President (Vladimir) Putin on their statements that the unity of Ukraine cannot be called into question,” he said on Twitter.
Earlier, EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini issued a statement slamming the rebel leadership elections as “a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine”.
The angry European response, likely to be echoed in Washington, raised the temperature in the West’s dispute with Russia over its support for separatists who have torn a swathe of Ukraine’s industrial heartland out from the pro-Western government’s control.
Russia, which risks facing a ratcheting up of already punishing EU and US sanctions, ignored Western appeals ahead of the vote and gave its full backing to elections that the Ukrainian government branded an illegal “farce.”
“We respect the expression of the will of the residents of southeast (Ukraine),” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Russian news agencies.
“Those elected have received a mandate to resolve the practical issues of re-establishing normal life in the region,” the ministry said.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine described the polls as a step toward formalising their de facto independence from Ukraine after seven months of fighting in which the United Nations says more than 4,000 people have died.
The separatist uprisings in a corner of Ukraine with long-held pro-Russian and pro-communist leanings started shortly after Russian troops invaded and annexed Crimea, a southern Ukrainian region, in March.
Russia justified that dramatic seizure of its neighbour’s territory by saying it needed to protect ethnic Russians from a surge of Ukrainian nationalism during the previous month’s pro-Western revolution in the capital Kiev.
In the east, Russia says it only provides political and humanitarian, not military, support to the rebels.
However, segments of the forces arrayed against Ukraine’s soldiers appear to be as heavily armed and well organised as a fully equipped regular army and long columns of military trucks have frequently been seen in the area of the Ukraine-Russia border.
Under the September truce, whose signatories included Russia, both sides were meant to cease fire as the start of a process leading to full autonomy for the pro-Russian areas.
But rebel leaders indicated they saw no likelihood of negotiations after Sunday’s voting.
“Ukraine does not want peace, as it claims. Obviously it is playing a double game,” the newly elected president of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, told journalists.