It was a flawed process, often chaotic, without any impartial supervision and condemned internationally as illegal. But tens of thousands turned up today to vote in the middle of a bloody conflict for a referendum, which may spell the end of what is left of united Ukraine.
The result is going to be a victory for separatists by a large percentage, with those opposed to them overwhelmingly staying away from the polls; as had been the case in Crimea.
There were further echoes of what took place there with the leader of the Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, declaring that once the results were announced, “All Ukrainian military troops on our territory will be considered illegal and declared occupiers”.
The separatists' "election commission" stated that official results would be announced on Monday afternoon. On Sunday night they claimed 89 per cent had voted in favour of self-rule, but verifying the figure may prove difficult in the absence of any independent observers monitoring the vote. A second vote may take place, on a date to be decided, on whether the people of Donbass want to join the Russian Federation.
Vladimir Putin had maintained that there would not be a reprise of the Crimean annexation in eastern Ukraine. But the caretaker government in Kiev described the polls as a “criminal farce organised by Russia”. Washington stressed that “the United States will not recognise the results of these illegal referenda”. This was echoed by Britain, France and Germany; all had blamed Moscow for encouraging the separatists in this region.
But this was less about a craving for immediate rule by the Kremlin, and more about the loathing felt towards the politicians in Kiev by vast swathes of the population in these parts. This is particularly the case where the state forces have been carrying out operations, increasingly with the use of armour in urban areas.
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
Militarily the success had been limited at best, while creating a deep sense of alienation among the public in places like Mariupol. On Sunday night there were reports that Ukrainian national guardsmen had opened fire on crowd outside the eastern town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, resulting in at least one fatality.
Among the residents who had queued up for hours to cast their votes here were many who had decided to vote for independence only after days of raids by Kiev’s forces, including a private army with links to an oligarch, culminating in an assault on a police station, setting it on fire. Between seven and 20 people died in the fighting there and elsewhere in the city.
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“Just a few days ago I was thinking that Ukraine must stay together, but then they sent soldiers into this city to shoot at our people”, said 47 year old Svetlana Kuznetsova Vladimirovich. “Those in power now in Kiev do not listen to us, they call us terrorists instead; it is they who have destroyed Ukraine, not us.”
This city on the Azov Sea had not been as stridently separatist as some others: it is a port, and steel works have provided employment and a degree of prosperity even during the current lean economic times. Pro-Moscow protesters had found it difficult to hold on to public buildings they had occupied, unlike in other cities and towns.
Government ministers in Kiev have repeatedly boasted about the supposed success of the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ in the east, focusing recently on Mariupol, which was deemed to be easier to capture than Slovyansk, a well-fortified rebel city where earlier efforts had been concentrated. After the attack on the police station, Arsen Avakov, the acting minister of interior, spoke on his Facebook page of “terrorists destroyed” and offered “annihilation” to those who continued to bear arms against the Ukrainian state.
Less than a week after the start of the military mission to Mariupol aimed at retaking state apparatus, the city hall has been gutted by fire, with its contents used to build barricades. The main military base, scenes of fierce clashes, lies empty, the security forces having evacuated. The last round of looting was taking place today, with what’s left, clothing, furniture, office supplies and parts of generators being removed.
The prize was an armoured personnel carrier which was towed out of the camp, initially, by a Toyota Land Cruiser with one of the front doors missing and bullet holes in the windscreen. The car had belonged to Valeryi Androschuk, the police chief of Mauripol, who had gone missing during the attack on the police station on Friday.
One of the reasons for the shooting breaking out, according to a police officer I spoke to in the morning, was that Commander Androschuk had ordered his officers to retake City Hall, then in the hands of the protesters, following instructions from Kiev. They had refused, a confrontation had ensued, and he had, at one point, opened fire with his pistol at a subordinate. Troops had subsequently arrived in support of the Commander and a group of like-minded senior officers, but he had been captured by separatists. What happened to him? I asked. “We think he had been killed”, said the police officer.
Four hours later came reports that Mr Androschuk’s body had been found, hanged, near Mauripol airport, an execution carried out following judgment by a ‘peoples’ court’: this could not, however, be confirmed, and the Commander officially continues to be missing.
Most of Mariupol’s civic administration had fled and polling was a hurriedly organised affair with four centres for a population of more than half million. The crowd circled the blocks to vote, patient and good-natured despite wait lasting hours.
Olga Petrasian, 18, a volunteer at a voting station, was helping Maria Demitriva to cast her vote. The 80-year-old grandmother had travelled 26 miles from her home to be there: “I know everyone says that we babushkas all want to join Russia, and we have forgotten all the bad things about communism. But all I want to do is make sure my grandchildren have a good future, we are not going to have that with the government which send tanks to our streets”. Ms Petrasian added: “I also feel there is no future with Kiev, my parents feel the same way, so you see three generations agree on this, we don’t want to stay in a Ukraine run by a junta.
Eliana, a 22-year-old student, is among those who do want to stay in a united Ukraine, but did not vote. Speaking at her home, not far from the burned our shell of the police station, she acknowledged: “The separatists will say we had the chance to take part in the referendum and didn’t do so. But what took place was illegal, why should we give it legitimacy? But also, I am afraid, we are all afraid. You saw what happened here, I cannot see any hope for the future.”