The World

Ukraine’s Dangerous Ambiguity

Pro-Russian fighters vote during an independence referendum at their position in the eastern Ukranian city of Slavyansk on May 11, 2014.

Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

In an outcome that was never seriously in doubt, pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk say voters in those regions overwhelmingly approved an independence referendum held yesterday.

The wording of the referendum—“Do you support the act of independence for the People’s Republic of Donetsk/Luhansk?”—left some room for interpretation. Some of those voting likely favored the union with Russia being pushed by pro-Russian militants, others likely saw the referendum as a vote of no confidence in the government in Kiev, a sentiment that undoubtedly exists even among those who favor the country remaining united.

Reporters also noted a number of irregularities, including few polling stations, a lack of voter verification, and in some cases individuals casting more than one ballot.

The aftermath of this referendum is unlikely to play out in the same way as the one held in Crimea in March. A Kremlin statement issued after the vote said that Russia “respects the will of the population,” but there don’t seem be any noises from Moscow about formal annexation of the disputed regions for now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had suggested before this Sunday’s vote that it should be postponed, possibly a sign that he’s starting to distance himself from the idea of the two regions being formally declared part of Russia.

Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk had discussed a second round of voting next week in which voters would be specifically ask about joining Russia, but those plans now seem to be on hold.

But when the separatists say the referendums have created a “new reality” on the ground, they seem to have a point. Evidence suggests that voters strongly in support of a united Ukraine stayed away form the poll, viewing it as illegitimate. Similarly, separatists plan to boycott Ukraine’s presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

Neither Kiev, nor its Western backers, nor—for the time being—Moscow seems to be pushing for regions to entirely separate from Ukraine following the vote. But it is becoming increasingly clear that, legally recognized or not, the country is already divided into two separate political realities. The country is in a dangerous state of ambiguity, and it’s not at all clear right now how it’s going to be resolved.