DONETSK, Ukraine – Pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukraine declared independence Monday and sought to join Russia, undermining upcoming presidential elections, strengthening the Kremlin’s hand and putting pressure on Kiev to hold talks with the separatists following a referendum on self-rule.
Russia signaled it has no intention of subsuming eastern Ukraine the way it annexed Crimea in March. Instead, Moscow is pushing to include eastern regions in negotiations on Ukraine’s future – suggesting that Russia prefers a political rather than a military solution to its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War.
Such talks are central to a potential path toward peace outlined Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The plan laid out by Swiss President Didier Burkhalter calls on all sides to refrain from violence and urges immediate amnesty, talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. That’s a key complaint of insurgents who have seized power in eastern regions and clashed with government troops and police.
But it’s up to the Ukrainian government to take the next step.
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged to hold a dialogue with Ukraine’s east. But he gave no specifics and stopped short of addressing Sunday’s referendum and the declarations of independence in the pro-Moscow regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We would like to launch the broad national dialogue with the east, center, the west, and all of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk told a news conference in Brussels, adding that the agenda for talks should include changes to the constitution that would give more powers to the regions.
The Ukrainian government’s room to maneuver is shrinking.
With national presidential elections scheduled for May 25, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence Monday, and those in Donetsk asked to join neighbor Russia instead. The sprawling areas form Ukraine’s industrial heartland.