So far, so predictable in Donetsk

Foreign Secretary William Hague says the votes have ‘zero credibility’. Credit: Reuters

By James Mates: Europe Editor in Ukraine

Well that’s the voting over, and no surprises so far. A ‘Yes’ vote claimed to be 89% and 96% in Donetsk and Lugansk respectively, on an improbable (to put it mildly) 75% turnout, and suddenly Ukraine is no more. According to Moscow it is ‘the will of the people’ and it wants a ‘civilised implementation of the results’.

London and Berlin take a different view. Foreign Secretary William Hague says the votes have ‘zero credibility’ and are ‘illegal by any standards’. Germany has in general taken a softer line with Russia than the UK, but their Foreign Minister Franz Walter Steinmeier was unequivocal: “The referendums are illegal. We cannot, and must not take them seriously”.

First to the numbers. It was pretty clear yesterday that an overwhelming majority of those who turned out to vote were voting ‘Yes’, so the 90%+ figures may well be close to the truth. But there is no way that the turn-out came close to the 75%+ that is being claimed. Voting lists were incomplete or non-existent; identity checks were at best cursory; there were only a fraction of the polling stations there would normally be. And it is clear that most of those opposed to independence simply stayed at home.

Read: Eight-nine percent in favour of self-rule in eastern Ukraine

The most recent piece of opinion research was carried out by Pew, and concluded that between 60 and 70% of people in the East favoured staying part of Ukraine. Events in the past few weeks may well have changed some people’s minds, but an opinion shift on the scale being claimed is just not credible.

But as we saw in Crimea, even a patently fraudulent referendum can be used by those who control the streets to legitimise their next moves, and in Donetsk and Lugansk it is the separatists who are firmly in control. They have already declared the Ukrainian military to be an ‘illegal invasion force’, and are now planning a second referendum next week on whether or not to join Russia. They already talk about switching to the Russian Rouble.

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, have claimed victory in a referendum on "self-rule" with 89% backing the proposal. Credit: Reuters

The separatists now have a pseudo-legitimacy that they may use to appeal for help from Moscow. Already Moscow is treating the seperatist ‘republics’ as formal entities, Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning that talks on Ukraine’s future should no longer involve the international community but the 2 parties within Ukraine.

It also seems certain that the Ukranian Presidential election, due to be held in two weeks time, will not involve the Eastern regions. The people there, whether they like it or not, are not going to be given the chance to cast a vote, and thus the country’s new President will lack the legitimacy of a national mandate. Which is the whole point, of course.

The international response remains, as ever, fractious and fragmented. President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have already suggested that if the May 25th Presidential vote is disrupted there will be a move towards more international sanctions, possible a move to what the diplomats are calling ‘Tier 3’ sanctions. In other words, direct economic sanctions against Russia similar to the ones in place against Iran.

The international community will move towards more sanctions against Russia if the presidential elections are disrupted. Credit: Reuters

But there is no sign that the EU is ready to go that far. Austria has already said this morning that “we need to be careful with any escalation of sanctions, otherwise we would already have been at war with Russia”. Bulgaria is, similarly, very reluctant to move any further.

Lithuania and the other Baltics are leading the hawks, perhaps not surprisingly, Vilnius saying this morning that “we must go further to send a very clear signal”. Britain and Germany are somewhere in the middle, William Hague believing that “we must demonstrate that we are ready for Tier 3 sanctions”, and the Germans wanting to “think about broader economic sanctions” Not exactly what you would call a united front.

Is any of this going to be enough to persuade President Putin that he has pushed things as far as he can without risking significant damage to Russia itself? There’s absolutely no sign of it so far.

Donetsk referendum: What is happening and why does it matter?