Russia has backed two self-rule referenda held in Ukraine’s industrial east on Sunday, despite both the interim Ukrainian government and Western powers blasting the polls as illegal.
In a bid to legitimise what pro-Russian separatist rebels in Eastern regions declared landslide victories, Moscow said Kiev should now engage in talks with representatives, with a view to implementing the results peacefully.
The Kremlin also urged the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help broker the talks.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov responded to the result by calling the verdict a “farce, which terrorists call the referendum", adding it “will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers.”
He also accused Russia of working to overthrow legitimate state power in Ukraine, and disrupt this month's presidential election, intended to bring stability and secure democracy following the ousting of Viktor Yanukovich country in February.
Sunday’s ballots in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces received a 90 percent turnout, with rebels saying the results show citizens backed their regions' sovereignty.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
According to early returns, 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in the neighbouring Luhansk region voted for sovereignty. However, it remained unclear whether the vote could lead to their secession.
Seemingly spurred on by the referendum result, a spokesman for pro-Russian separatists in what he called the "Republic of Luhansk" said they may hold a separate poll on joining Russia, state news agency RIA on Monday afternoon.
"If this decision [to hold a referendum on joining Russia] is taken, then, respectively, the will of the people will be taken into account," the spokesman said, but did not elaborate on further details.
Prior to the announcement made in Luhansk, the Kremlin said in a statement on Monday morning: “In Moscow, we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilised manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue.”
It also praised the population for a “high turnout” despite what it called “attempts to disrupt the vote”.
While the votes were mostly peaceful, armed men opened fire on a crowd outside the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk. The men identified themselves to a crowd as Ukrainian national guards but the Interior Ministry has denied they were part of the national guard.
“We condemn the use of force, including of heavy weapons against civilians,” the statement read.
But despite the show of support, Russia showed no sign of its intention to annex Donetsk or Luhansk provinces, as it did with Crimea following a similar referendum in March.
As violent clashes in the region bring the threat of civil war closer by the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained his distance from the referenda, and has not yet given a personal statement on the result, after he called on the rebels to delay the vote last week.
The cautious stance appears to reflect Putin's hope to negotiate a solution to what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War which was not helped by Sunday’s ballots.
Read more: Terror and disarray mars vote for self-rule
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After a meeting in Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers indicated that any disruption of elections in Ukraine on 25 May could trigger new economic sanctions against Russia.
"The European Union will pay particular attention to all parties' attitude and behaviour towards the holding of free and fair presidential elections when deciding about possible future measures," they said in a statement after the meeting.
At the same meeting, they agreed to add 13 people and two companies to the existing sanctions list in a bid to pressure Moscow over its stance on Ukraine.
Before the meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague joined EU ministers in declaring Sunday's referenda illegal, and said it is essential to show Moscow the bloc is ready to step up measures "depending on Russia's attitude toward the elections" in Ukraine.
Sunday's vote was "illegal by anybody's standards," he said.
Earlier in the day, a German government spokesman said a "round table" of Ukrainian politicians and civil groups will meet on Wednesday to discuss the tense situation.
"We need national dialogue in Ukraine with the participation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to discuss crucial themes like decentralisation, constitutional questions, constitutional reforms," spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters at a press conference on Monday.
A spokesman for the foreign ministry declined to say which groups would be involved.
The outcome of the talks may affect further diplomatic international negotiations on Ukraine, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that progress in de-escalating the crisis was possible only if the rival sides in Ukraine spoke directly - only then would further negotiations be considered.
Additional reporting by agenciesReuse content