The European Union (EU) was intensifying diplomatic efforts on Tuesday to get Ukraine’s leadership and pro-Moscow rebels to the negotiating table, as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe said Moscow supports a de-escalation roadmap for the crisis.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier kicks things off with an early morning visit to Kiev to support a “national dialogue” between Ukraine and the pro-Russian regions in the east, said his spokesman in Berlin.
He will also travel to pro-Russian east Ukraine.
Later in the day the European Commission will host Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Brussels to offer support and discuss the next move in attempts to defuse a crisis that has reached Cold War proportions.
The fresh diplomatic flurry comes after rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region appealed on Monday to join Russia after what they claimed were resounding victories in independence referendums.
Both European and US officials denounced the votes, with EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy calling them “illegal, illegitimate and not credible” during a visit to Kiev on Monday.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the voting “was an attempt to create further division and disorder” in Ukraine.
However Russia said it “respects” the result of the weekend votes on self-rule, which were denounced by authorities in Kiev as a “criminal farce”.
But Moscow left the door open to a negotiated solution, calling for talks between Kiev and the rebels in the industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, home to 7 million of Ukraine’s 46 million people.
Vladimir Putin is “supportive” of the OSCE’s de-escalation roadmap for Ukraine, the European security body said on Monday after a phone call between its chairman and the Russian president.
This roadmap, drawn up last week, focuses on “restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections,” the OSCE said.
The Vienna-based OSCE, which began life as a forum for East-West dialogue in the Cold War and is becoming an important voice in the Ukraine crisis, aims to have around 1,000 observers on the ground for the scheduled Ukraine presidential election on May 25.
The Kremlin’s more moderate tone allayed fears Moscow might move to quickly annex the eastern territories, as it did earlier this year after a similar vote in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Rebel officials in Donetsk had earlier said 89 per cent of voters backed breaking away from Ukraine in Sunday’s referendum, with a turnout of 75 per cent. Separatists in Lugansk said 94 per cent had backed independence.
Moscow endorsed the separatist votes, with Putin’s office saying in a statement: “Moscow respects the expression of the people’s will in Donetsk and Lugansk.”
The Kremlin called for “the results to be implemented in a civilised manner, without any repeat of violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.”
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said Kiev was willing to “continue dialogue with those in the east of Ukraine who have no blood on their hands” but dismissed the votes.
“The farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda,” he said.
On the streets of Donetsk meanwhile, confusion reigned.
“For me, I am still in Ukraine but who knows where we will be tomorrow – it is a mad house,” pensioner Anna told reporters in Donetsk.
The crisis has raised fears of a violent breakup of Ukraine and the possibility of a civil war on Europe’s eastern edge.
An agreement between Moscow, Kiev, Washington and the EU in Geneva last month did little to ease tensions and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday there was no point in further discussions without the separatists.
“Holding another four-way meeting makes little sense,” Lavrov said. “We do not want to repeat what has already taken place ... but to move on to talks between Kiev and its opponents in the eastern regions of Ukraine.”
Kiev and Western leaders have accused Moscow of backing the rebels and on Monday EU foreign ministers announced new sanctions against Russians and Crimeans involved in the crisis.
A further 13 people and two companies were listed as subject to a European Union asset freeze and visa ban, EU diplomats said.
Meanwhile Canada slapped fresh sanctions on a dozen Russian and Ukrainian separatists.
Van Rompuy warned the EU was ready to take “additional, far-reaching” steps “in a broad range of areas” if Russia failed to help resolve the conflict.
The EU has so far imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 48 Russians and Ukrainians for violating or threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Highlighting the stakes for the EU, Russia’s state gas giant Gazprom warned on Monday it may halt shipments to Ukraine on June 3 in a repeat of previous energy wars that hit Europe.
Gazprom’s chief executive, Alexei Miller, said Ukraine must pay up-front for its June deliveries because of debts totalling US$3.51 billion.
Nearly 15 per cent of all gas consumed in Europe is delivered from Russia via Ukraine and previous disputes in 2006 and 2009 disrupted supplies to parts of the EU.
On the ground on Monday, sporadic explosions and gunfire could be heard in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, as Ukraine’s military pressed its siege of the rebel-held town.
Isolated violence flared during voting in some parts of eastern Ukraine on Sunday, where troops have been waging an offensive against well-armed rebels in control of several towns.
Anti-Kiev sentiment was riding high in the regions after a fierce firefight between troops and rebels that left several dead in the city of Mariupol on Friday.
Ukrainian officials have said 49 people have died in the Donetsk region since the start of the unrest, and deadly clashes and an inferno in Odessa killed at least 42 people earlier this month.