Pro-Russian activists declared Thursday they will move forward with planned referendums on Sunday over autonomy in southeastern Ukraine, despite a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to delay the vote.
Opponents of the Kiev government in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk announced the move on Thursday. Denis Pushilin of the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" told reporters the decision was unanimous, according to numerous media reports. "Civil war has already begun," he said. "The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process."
While the referendums are slated to address self-rule of south eastern Ukraine, they could open to door to annexation by Russia.
The decision follows a public statement by Putin on Wednesday in which he called for deescalation, announced a redeployment of Russian troops away from the Ukraine border, and urged a delay of Sunday's planned referendums as a way to ease tensions.
His comments provoked anger among some opponents of Kiev. "He [Putin] is a coward. He is afraid of losing his money," said a member of the Slavyansk self-defense militia, according to the Guardian on Wednesday. "Instead of helping Russian people here, he is betraying us. He will pay for this with a revolution in Red Square. Russian people will not stand by and watch this happen."
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The announcement that local leaders are prepared to forge ahead with Sunday's referendums was met with immediate condemnation from the West, including charges that Russia was to blame, even though the votes appear to be moving forward despite Putin's explicit call for postponement. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns stated that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure."
Furthermore, Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters Thursday morning that his forces have seen no signs that Russia has withdrawn forces from the Ukraine border.
Meanwhile, officials in Kiev vowed to continue their military operations in southeastern Ukraine. "The counter-terrorist operation will go on regardless of any decisions by any subversive or terrorist groups in the Donetsk region," Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council, told reporters.
In addition, the U.S. is sending 600 troops to eastern European countries, and Nato's leading commander, General Philip Breedlove, recently stated that Nato is considering permanently deploying troops to eastern Europe.