Ukraine break-up a step closer as rebels defy Putin on ballot plan
The leaders of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic gathered under the twin-headed eagle of their new flag yesterday and pledged to hold an independence referendum on Sunday in defiance of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Denis Pushilin, the self-styled prime minister of the People's Republic, said the contest would go ahead as planned, despite Mr Putin's suggestion of a postponement.
The unanimous decision by the "Donetsk People's Council" escalates the crisis and makes the break-up of Ukraine an imminent possibility.
Donetsk is the most populous region of the country, with 4.5 million people, and is the industrial backbone of the national economy.
On Sunday, it will vote on whether to become an independent republic, a step towards joining Russia.
If Mr Pushilin's movement succeeds, then Ukraine is only days away from losing another 10,000 square miles of territory and 10pc of its population, after Crimea's secession in March.
Mr Pushilin announced the rejection of the Russian president's advice at a press conference in a regional government building, which was occupied last month.
He noted that a "person who indeed cares for the people" had suggested delaying the referendum, but described himself as the "bullhorn of the people" and said the "popular will" was to proceed with the poll on Sunday.
"We are waiting for provocations – even today we are waiting for them," he said. "But despite this, the population wants to have the referendum. There are millions of people waiting to cast their votes."
Mr Putin would learn of this decision from the media like everyone else. "We have not had direct contact with President Putin," said Mr Pushilin.
"We have had our meeting and now we are having our press conference and he is going to be aware of the decision," he added.
Another member of the self-proclaimed government said: "If we cancel the referendum, we will lose the trust of the people. The referendum is a symbol of freedom, of victory."
Mr Pushilin stressed that the People's Republic was already at war with the "junta" in Kiev.
A fear of Ukraine's supposedly "fascist" government and a deep vein of Russian nationalism lies behind the rebellion.
The white, blue and red of Russia's national flag already flies from occupied public buildings.
Yet the decision to proceed with the vote is intended to show that the rebels are independent.
It will also strengthen Mr Putin's argument that he has no control over events in Donetsk, and Western governments should not expect Russia to de-escalate Ukraine's crisis.
Whether a credible contest can be staged on Sunday is questionable. The People's Republic claims that 1,200 polling stations and 53 counting centres will be ready to receive three million ballot papers that have already been printed.
But the insurgents hold government premises in about a dozen towns and cities across a region the size of Wales. Only one town, Slavyansk, is under their complete control.
Ukraine's government, meanwhile, has deployed the army to crush the rebellion. So far the operation has made little headway, but the security forces might be able to thwart a credible referendum.
Anticipating more bloodshed, the People's Republic is strengthening the defence of its headquarters in Donetsk. Men carrying loaded Kalashnikov assault rifles are visible on almost every floor. Some wear civilian clothes, others resemble professional soldiers.
Yesterday, six men in military camouflage strode into the building carrying guns and canvass bags filled with what looked like night-vision equipment.
Sergei Taruta, the official governor of Donetsk region, once worked from this building. Although evicted, he is still in Donetsk. He denounced a "pseudo referendum" that could only have a "pseudo result".
"To what extent they will be able to have this referendum will be revealed on May 11," he said.
The question on the ballot paper asks voters if they want independence for Donetsk.
But the evidence suggests this is a minority cause. Last month, an opinion poll found that 52pc of the region's people wanted to stay in Ukraine, with only 28pc favouring union with Russia. (© Daily Telegraph, London)