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Five Takeaways From Eastern Ukraine's Separatist Vote

Armed security men guard a polling station during the elections in Donetsk on November 2.
Armed security men guard a polling station during the elections in Donetsk on November 2.

The elections held in eastern Ukraine by the pro-Russian separatists may not have been recognized by anyone but Russia, but that may be all that matters.

Here are some more takeaways from the November 2 vote.

Western nonrecognition is a moot point for separatists

The November 2 elections in Ukraine's separatist republics will not be recognized by the West. From the point of view of the leaders of the self-proclaimed "DNR" and "LNR," however, this may be irrelevant, because Moscow is recognizing them. In theory, this will allow Russia to more publicly deal with the separatists as a government separate from Ukraine.

Kyiv losing battle for hearts and minds in Donbas

Drawing official turnout figures is impossible given that there were no actual election rolls. Nonetheless, reporters on the ground showed long lines of people coming out to vote, even in small villages. And in interviews, many were less enchanted with separatist leaders than bitterly angry with Ukraine's leadership in Kyiv. The war has taken a heavy toll and it is clear that many in Donetsk and Luhansk blame Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cast the vote as a "farce at gunpoint." In the traditional sense, he may be right, but many of the people who came to vote expressed a real sense that doing so would somehow bring peace to the region.

Talk of de-escalation may be premature

In the weeks leading up to the vote, many had talked about it signaling the start of a long-running frozen conflict, with de facto borders. However, reports that Russian military personnel and equipment are again entering Ukraine in large numbers may mean something altogether different. Separatist leaders have said they plan to reclaim lost territories and also the important port city of Mariupol by force if they are not given to them. And the threats may be about more than land -- areas currently in Ukrainian control have resources that may be necessary to maintain viable services, including electricity.

Residents voted for stability, but that's not likely soon

Large swaths of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine both blame Kyiv for the violence and hope their votes will bring stability to the region. But for the self-proclaimed separatist leadership and their backers in Moscow these two thoughts may paradoxically be a signal to continue fighting. Ukraine is unlikely to restore pension payments or energy provisions, which were cut off in the summer. Meanwhile, separatists will now have to back up the claims that they can govern without Kyiv by providing some of the resources that have been so sorely lacking. If claiming territories is seen as a way to do so and they believe any violence will be blamed on Kyiv, fighting, in a purely political sense, may not have a downside.

Moscow is testing the West

Russia appears to be testing the West again. The separatist vote was a clear violation of the Minsk agreement, signed off on by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which stipulated that early elections in separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk would have to take place under Ukrainian law. Does the EU -- now distracted by other international events -- have the wherewithal to continue, and add to, the sanctions already in place against Russia? What is the EU prepared to do if Russia escalates the conflict militarily?

Following the vote, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Moscow to respect the "unity of Ukraine." He said Russia would be judged "on their statements that the unity of Ukraine cannot be called into question." And according to Reuters, the spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that further sanctions would be possible if the situation worsened. Perplexing statements, perhaps, given that Russia had just recognized the unrecognized vote of a self-declared separatist government.

Bonus: 'Election monitor' cynicism a sight to behold

Using fake election monitors to grant illegitimate elections an air of legitimacy is a specialty of nondemocratic governments. But the use of politicians from Europe's far right may have set a new standard, given Moscow's long-running contention that Ukraine separatists were a force against Nazism. A Russian press that portrays every move of Ukraine's fringe right as an ominous sign of a coming fascist siege appeared to have no dilemma in citing the positive election impressions of "observer" Marton Gyongyosi -- a member of Hungary's (actually influential) far-right Jobbik party who once suggested creating a national list of Jews.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.