'People's Republics' declared in rebel regions of Ukraine
Ukraine's most populous regions stood on the verge of joining Russia yesterday when the birth of new republics was simultaneously proclaimed in Donetsk and Luhansk following a disputed referendum on self-rule.
Denis Pushilin, the self-styled prime minister of the Donetsk region, stood outside the main government building, which his followers seized last month, and announced: "The People's Republic is now sovereign!"
A few hundred people had gathered for the occasion inside a barricade of old tyres, festooned with posters comparing America, Europe and Ukraine's new government to "fascists" and "Nazis". They clapped, whistled and cheered.
Earlier, Roman Lyagin, one of Mr Pushilin's colleagues, said the region – which has a population of 4.5 million people and is the industrial backbone of Ukraine's economy – was destined to join Russia.
"There are a lot of paths which we may follow, so the step to join the Russian Federation would probably be an appropriate step," he said.
Mr Lyagin had just announced the final result of Sunday's referendum on splitting from Ukraine.
He said that 89.7pc had voted "yes", 10.19pc "no" and 0.74pc of ballot papers had been spoiled. This produced a total of 100.63pc.
It later emerged that Mr Lyagin had misspoken and the "yes" vote had actually been 89.07pc. However, his figures also suggested that the number of ballot papers counted or discarded had exceeded the total produced by 2,534. This discrepancy was not explained.
In Luhanks, organisers said about 96pc of those who turned out voted for sovereignty.
William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, condemned a referendum with "zero credibility in the eyes of the world", adding: "It did not meet a single standard in terms of fairness, objectivity and transparency."
The US State Department said America would not recognise a referendum designed to "create further division and disorder in the country".
However, the pro-Russian leaders are trying to give their "People's Republic" the trappings of a state.
Mr Pushilin now has an entourage of aides and bodyguards clad in camouflage fatigues. Yesterday, he said that an army was "in the process of being formed", based on the "Donbass People's Militia", whose fighters already guard occupied buildings armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Mr Pushilin said that everything else about the future of the territory, including whether it would join Russia or seek recognised independence, would be "decided later" with the help of "experts".
Differing from Mr Lyagin, he added: "We have received sovereignty, the right to self-rule. Now we have the right to join another country. Which country, we will decide later."
Ukraine's government has deployed the army to crush the separatist forces.
However, the offensive has made no progress and alienated many of Donetsk's people with a series of bungled or bloody operations.
Mr Pushilin accused the Kiev government of spurning negotiations and relying solely on "force". He added that the "People's Republic" might request Russian military help.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, noted a "high turnout in the referendum", adding: "We respect the will of the population of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and we believe that the practical implementation of the results of this vote will be carried out in a civilised manner."
Meanwhile, Gazprom, the Russian state energy giant, exerted more pressure on Ukraine's government, threatening to cut off gas supplies by June 3 unless Kiev settles its debts. (© Daily Telegraph, London)