KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow offered warm support Monday for rebel-organized elections in eastern Ukraine — an endorsement that could only serve to keep the West's sanctions against Russia in place.
Pro-Russian separatist authorities said Sunday's vote, which saw two rebel leaders easily reconfirmed in their roles, gives them a powerful mandate to slip further from Ukrainian rule.
Plans for the election had been condemned by the European Union and the United States, which said it violated Ukrainian law and undermined a 2-month-old cease-fire deal that has existed only on paper.
"The United States deplores and does not recognize yesterday's so-called separatist elections in eastern Ukraine, nor do we recognize any of the leaders chosen in this illegal vote," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Monday. "If Russia were to recognize the so-called elections, it would only serve to isolate it further. "
Russia's Foreign Ministry indicated in a statement that it would refrain from supporting outright independence for the Donbass, as Ukraine's heavily industrial eastern regions are known collectively.
"In view of the elections, it is extremely important to take active steps toward promoting sustained dialogue between central Ukrainian authorities and the representatives of the Donbass," the Russian statement said.
A rebuke was swift in coming from Germany, which deems Russia's position on the vote in the rebel-held areas detrimental to the September truce deal signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. That accord envisioned local elections being held across the whole of the east and under Kiev's supervision.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that because the elections weren't carried out in accordance with Ukrainian law they "can have no legal relevance" and will deepen the crisis.
The head of the election body in the main rebel city of Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, said inescapable conclusions needed to be drawn from the polls.
"Kiev has to come to terms with the idea that Donbass is not part of Ukraine," he said. "Whether they will recognize the result of our vote or not is Kiev's problem."
Any hardening of secessionist views portends more unrest in the east, where more than 4,000 people have been killed in six months of fighting between government troops and rebel forces.
U.S. and European sanctions against Russia in response to the Kremlin's support for the insurgency have dented an economy already teetering on the brink of recession. Investors have balked at taking risks in Moscow and capital flight is at full throttle.
Despite Moscow's seeming unwillingness to compromise on Ukraine, resolve had wavered among some EU members over whether keep all the economic sanctions in place. With its support for the separatist vote, however, Moscow has sealed its fate in the short-term.
"The more Russia appears to be doubling down in Ukraine and using the separatist elections to keep the country divided and weak, then the more difficult alleviating the EU sanctions will be," said Joshua Shifrinson, an assistant professor at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Donald Jensen, a fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at The Johns Hopkins University, said the united European front may eventually crumble should countries with warmer relations to Russia choose to dissent, resisting pressure from the United States.
"The problem with the EU sanctions is that they require unanimity," he said. "They expire in the middle of next year and getting that unanimity is going to be very hard without very strong and vigorous leverage from Washington."
The separatist vote came on the heels of national parliamentary elections in Ukraine that marked the ascendancy of several staunchly pro-Western parties. That marked the culmination of a process that began with the public revolt that led to the overthrow in February of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who sparked widespread ire by favoring ties with Russia over the European Union.
Shifrinson said that Moscow's strategy in east Ukraine may be aimed in part at reminding Kiev that the parliamentary election was no excuse to disregard Russian interests.
"Despite appearing to be challenging Kiev's authority, recognizing the separatist elections may simply be an effort by Russia to salvage something of its influence," Shifrinson said, while stressing that no strategic interests could justify Russia's conduct.
With the unrest likely to rage on, Ukraine looks destined to join the club of post-Soviet nations bedeviled by frozen conflict.
Jensen said that binding the future of Ukraine to Russia's whims appears to be the outcome sought by the Kremlin.
"This kind of frozen conflict is something the Kremlin can keep going for a long time, and the Ukrainians certainly don't have the ability to roll it back right now," Jensen said.
Currently, the conflict is all too hot.
After a brief lull in hostilities around Donetsk on the day of the election, the sound of artillery fire again boomed for hours Monday from the northern outskirts of the city. An AP reporter spotted a vast column of military vehicles east of Donetsk on the eve of the vote, suggesting that the rebels are doing well for firepower.
Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of pouring weapons and manpower into Ukraine, claims that Moscow has always denied. Over the weekend, Ukrainian security officials said they noted a new intensification in that flow.
A NATO military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said the Western military alliance had seen reports of recent Russian troop movements into eastern Ukraine.
The task of monitoring the nominal cease-fire has fallen to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has in recent weeks deployed drones in the region to facilitate its mission.
The OSCE said in statement that a drone flying over a rebel-controlled area came under aircraft gunfire Sunday, but that the aircraft wasn't hit.
In a separate incident, an OSCE drone was subjected to signal jamming Wednesday in a zone near the village of Sartana, which is controlled by government troops.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Donetsk, Ukraine; Geir Moulson in Berlin; George Jahn in Vienna; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.