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.
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.
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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 agencies
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