Russia defends ‘sham’ elections in eastern Ukraine

Moscow defiant as US and Europe denounce separatist ballots in Donetsk and Luhansk

People attend a campaign meeting for  Denis Pushilin, in Donetsk. Photograph: Aleksey Filippov/AFP/Getty Images

People attend a campaign meeting for Denis Pushilin, in Donetsk. Photograph: Aleksey Filippov/AFP/Getty Images

 

Russia has defended Sunday’s separatist elections in eastern Ukraine, which Kiev and its western allies denounced as a sham that would only harm efforts to end a war that has killed more than 10,300 people and poisoned relations between Europe and Moscow.

Moscow-controlled militia in eastern Ukraine announced on Monday that incumbents Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik had easily won elections to lead the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (the DNR and LNR) respectively.

Mr Pushilin is a former casino croupier and pyramid-scheme salesman, while Mr Pasechnik worked for the Ukrainian security services before Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist conflict in the Donbass region in spring 2014.

The previous leader of the DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko, was blown up in a Donetsk restaurant in August, and Mr Pasechnik’s predecessor as the head of the LNR, Igor Plotnitsky, left for Russia last year after an apparent assassination attempt and power struggle.

The US and European powers urged Russia to cancel the elections, which they called a serious breach of the 2015 Minsk agreements, a peace plan that lays out steps towards a resolution of the conflict.

“We look with understanding upon the fact that these elections were conducted,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

“We’re talking about two republics that have been rejected by Ukraine and are under a complete embargo,” he added, claiming that in the face of Kiev’s alleged neglect the two regions “had no choice but to organise themselves to guarantee their own survival, life, and social obligations to people who have been abandoned by their country”.

Kremlin denials

The Kremlin denies arming, funding and having ultimate control over the DNR and LNR, despite the documented presence of Russian troops and arms in the regions and evidence of Moscow’s direct political and economic ties to the militias.

Asked whether Russian president Vladimir Putin had congratulated Mr Pushilin and Mr Pasechnik, Mr Peskov said: “I don’t know anything about that.”

Iryna Gerashchenko, the deputy speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, on Monday urged EU states “that condemned the pseudo-elections in Donbass not to limit themselves to ‘concern’ but to tighten sanctions” on Russia.

“Why was this farce so dangerous?” she said of the elections.

“Because it was a total repetition of the 2014 scenario when, because of pseudo-elections organised by Moscow, not only were peace talks in Minsk broken off but there followed a significant destabilisation on the frontline.”

French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel called the elections “illegal and illegitimate” after talks in Paris on Sunday with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine, said people in Donetsk and Luhansk “will be better off within a unified Ukraine at peace, rather than in a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidised by Russian taxpayers”.