Russia Again Defies Obama, As Separatists in Ukraine Hold Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | November 3, 2014 | 4:16am EST

Pro-Russian rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko prepares to casts his ballot during elections, dismissed by Ukraine and the West as illegitimate, in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

( – The tensions that have dogged the U.S.-Russia relationship in recent years were starkly evident again on Sunday. On the eve of the U.S. midterm election, separatists in eastern Ukraine held their own Moscow-endorsed vote, in defiance of the Ukraine government and its Western backers.

Early results indicated that voters in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” would likely choose as leaders the two men who are already the regions’ self-declared “prime ministers,” Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, respectively.

Russia’s support for the elections in Donetsk and Lugansk was the latest in a long series of provocative moves this year, including the annexation of Crimea and active support for the separatists in their armed confrontation with the Ukraine government.

Months of deadly fighting was intended to end with a ceasefire agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia and the separatists in Minsk, Belarus in September, although almost-daily violations continue.

Kiev and the West say that under the Minsk agreement, the eastern regions should hold local elections under Ukrainian law, and Ukraine’s parliament set Dec. 7 as the poll date. But Russia disputes that reading of the pact, and backed the separatists’ decision to go ahead with Sunday’s vote for their leaders and lawmakers.

The U.S. and European Union have both warned the results will not be recognized, but that has deterred neither the separatists nor Russia.

Sunday’s elections take Donetsk and Lugansk a step closer to becoming Ukraine’s equivalent of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Despite the fact the international community does not recognize their status, the two breakaway regions have ruled themselves, propped up by Moscow, since the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.

“We have grave concerns that separatists plan to go ahead with illegitimate and illegal elections in areas of eastern Ukraine on Sunday,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said two days before the vote. “The United States will not recognize the results.”

On Sunday, the E.U.’s new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also called the election “illegal and illegitimate” adding that the E.U. “will not recognize it.”

Without mentioning Russia by name, Mogherini urged “all parties to act in full respect of the territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence and unity” of Ukraine.

‘That could be problematic’

But in Moscow, the foreign ministry said Sunday Russia viewed the elections as valid, and would respect the will expressed by the voters.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Paris, and told reporters afterwards he had stressed to the foreign minister that the only legitimate elections in Donetsk and Lugansk would be those scheduled for Dec. 7.

On Friday, Kerry said during an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show that the elections planned for Sunday were “outside of the Minsk agreement and we would not view those as legitimate, and that could be problematic.”

He said the U.S believed Ukraine could have a strong relationship with both the E.U. and Russia and “be a bridge between the two.”

“But President [Vladimir] Putin really needs to decide that he wants to respect the sovereign rights of the people of Ukraine to make that decision for themselves, and to work with us in a constructive way rather than to attack the norms of behavior and the standards which have guided us ever since World War II,” Kerry said.

Despite the administration’s  much-touted “reset” with Russia in 2009, relations between the two governments have lurched from one crisis to the next over much of the ensuing period.

Even before the rift over Ukraine and imposition of sanctions against Moscow – arguably the most serious since the end of the Cold War – these included the following:

--NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya angered Russia, which accused the U.S. and European partners of exceeding the authority of a U.N. Security Council resolution by taking sides in the conflict and ultimately toppling Muammar Gaddafi.

--Since late 2011 Russia, joined by China, has vetoed three Security Council resolutions relating to the civil war in Syria. Moscow is among Syrian President Bashar Assad’s closest allies, while the West is supporting some of the opposition trying to oust him.

--Shortly after Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, Russia accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of interfering in its political process and ordered it to shut down its operations.

--In late 2012 and following, the two governments sparred over human rights, especially following the passage of U.S. legislation targeting human rights violators in Russia, and again in mid-2013 after Russia passed a law prohibiting the promotion of “non-traditional sexual orientation” to minors.

--In 2013 Putin granted asylum to Edward Snowden after the former NSA contractor exposed U.S. surveillance operations around the world. In response, President Obama canceled a planned one-on-one meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg last fall.

Despite the many differences, the administration has continued to highlight the importance of cooperating with Russia in other areas, including Afghanistan and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues.

Kerry recently added the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) to that list, although Moscow rejects the notion that it is part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

MRC Store