Pro-Moscow rebel leaders in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk called on Monday to become part of Russia, a day after staging a referendum that overwhelmingly supported self-rule.
Moscow, however, stopped short of endorsing their bid for annexation.
Announcing the result of the vote in one of the two provinces where it was held, a leader of the "People's Republic of Donetsk", Denis Pushilin, said it was now an independent state and would appeal to join the Russian Federation.
"The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world. For us, the history of Russia is our history," Pushilin told a news conference.
"Based on the will of the people and on the restoration of a historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the absorption of the Donetsk People's Republic into the Russian Federation," he said.
Donetsk separatists said more than 80 percent of voters had supported independence.
In neighbouring Luhansk, more than 96 percent of voters supported independence, rebel leaders said, adding they might now hold a second referendum on joining Russia, similar to one held in Crimea, a Ukrainian region Moscow seized and annexed in March.
Donetsk and Luhansk together are home to 6.5 million people and produce around a third of Ukraine's industrial output, creating the biggest new self-proclaimed independent states in Europe since the break-ups of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union itself more than 20 years ago.
West slams referendum as illegal
The government in Kiev and its Western backers say the exercise was absurd and with no legal basis. They point to alleged insecure polling stations, old voter lists, ballots that could be easily reproduced, and self-proclaimed election officials openly promoting secession. They argue that residents who support a united Ukraine were most likely to have stayed home out of fear of rebel gunmen and to avoid lending the vote credibility.
Unlike in Crimea, Moscow has stopped short of recognising the two regions as independent from Kiev and has said nothing to suggest it would endorse their absorption into Russia. President Vladimir Putin even called last week for the referendum to be postponed.
But Moscow indicated clearly on Monday that it intends to use the results of the referendums to put pressure on the government in Kiev to recognise the rebels in the east as a legitimate side in talks.
"We believe that the results of the referendum should be brought to life within the framework of dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
It accused the Kiev government of a "criminal lack of readiness for dialogue with their own people".
Some Western analysts argue that Russia’s stance appears calculated to entrench Moscow's allies in control of Ukraine's industrial heartland without taking the sort of overt steps - sending in ground forces or formally recognising the regions' split from Kiev - that might invite tough sanctions from the West.
The mayor of Slaviansk, a small city in the Donetsk region that has become the most heavily fortified rebel redoubt, said Ukrainian troops were now occupiers, and Russian troops should be invited to help defend the area.
"They should go," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said of Ukrainian forces. "We're going to defend our territory."
As for bringing in Russian forces, he stated, "I support this. We need Russian troops to provide stability and a peaceful life in the region's future."
Losing control of Donetsk and Luhansk would be a crippling blow for Ukraine, a country of around 45 million people the size of France, which is facing bankruptcy after half a year of turmoil.
Donetsk and Luhansk produce more than 15 percent of Ukraine's GDP, including around a third of its industrial output from the giant steel smelters and other heavy industry of the Donbass, one of Europe's most productive coal producing regions.
If they slip out of Kiev's control without being formally absorbed by Moscow, they would become by far the biggest and most economically important of the self-proclaimed independent statelets Russia protects in other parts of the ex-Soviet Union.
The International Monetary Fund, which is arranging a bailout of Ukraine's finances, has said it would have to renegotiate if Kiev lost control of the east.
The government in Kiev and Western nations accuse Russia of stirring up unrest in the east following the overthrow of a pro-Moscow president in February by protesters demanding closer links with Europe. President Oleksander Turchinov accused the Kremlin of trying to disrupt a Ukrainian presidential election later this month.
In March, Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing Russia's right to intervene in Ukraine, seizing and annexing Crimea and massing tens of thousands of troops on the frontier. Putin said last week he had withdrawn the troops from the border area, but Washington and NATO said this was not true. They also say Russian special forces are active on the ground, which Moscow denies.
Eastern Ukraine has been plagued by turmoil as Kiev has staged a largely failed military operation to regain control of towns held by the separatists.
Authorities said that 49 people have been killed in violence in the region of Donetsk since March 13.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-12