The government in Kyiv has pledged to ensure voters in eastern Ukraine will be able to cast ballots in Sunday's presidential election, but with violence escalating and pro-Russian separatists vowing disruption, it is unclear whether authorities will be able to follow through.
For a second day Friday, armed separatists and government-allied forces clashed near the eastern city of Donetsk. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the Donetsk regional administration as saying one person was killed and nine wounded in the fighting. Semyon Semenchenko, who commands the pro-Ukrainian militia known as the Donbass battalion, said that half of his men had been wounded in the battle and that others had been taken prisoner or killed.
A day earlier separatists ambushed a Ukrainian National Guard checkpoint, killing at least 13 soldiers.
With violence in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk escalating, fears are mounting that voting in the east will be so disrupted that the election will lack legitimacy and contribute to further fracturing of the country.
With separatists threatening to close polling stations and shutter local election commissions, the government is enrolling volunteers to help with security. Even the tax police are being asked to help.
More than 55,000 police officers, national guardsmen and units from the Interior Ministry will help protect polling stations for Sunday's election, Deputy Prosecutor General Mykola Holomsha said.
But foreign election advisers have been frustrated with the Kyiv government's failure to anticipate more security challenges. They fault the government for not drafting early security plans for polling stations and ballot storage facilities, and for failing to provide local officials with adequate protection.
Under federal law the police provide election security, but in the east many police officers have sided with separatists or are unwilling to challenge them. Foreign election advisers had urged the government to give the army a role in securing polling stations.
Moscow vows to support outcome
Speaking Friday at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia will respect the outcome of the election and work with the new leadership resulting from the vote. But he added that that he hopes the election will immediately be followed by a suspension of all military actions and the start of a "dialogue."
Putin also blamed the West for the conflict in Ukraine, describing the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February as a "coup" backed by the U.S. and European governments, and the current situation in Ukraine as "a full-scale civil war."
Earlier Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed what he called the West's “dangerous megalomania" for triggering the crisis. Addressing a Moscow security conference, Lavrov also said the West was trying to contain Russia using Cold War-era tactics.
But Ukrainian officials say despite signs that the Kremlin is starting to pull back Russian troops massed on the border, Moscow is still helping separatists with arms and men.
"As to the trafficking in weapons, yes, we confirm that this night there was one more attempt to bring, to traffic into the Ukraine, heavy weapons on four trucks from the Russian Federation," said Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine's intelligence service, the SBU. "Unfortunately, such attempts are still happening. We estimate that the main threat before Election Day is the illegal trafficking of human beings and weapons."
Nalyvaichenko said that officials have thwarted a separatist attempt at disrupt the vote with a computer virus.
Separatist leaders, who declared independence earlier this month after a controversial referendum vote, have declared Sunday’s election illegal.
Earlier this month, a group of gunmen seized the main election commission office in Donetsk. Recently separatists kidnapped the head of the local election commission in Kramatorsk, a town north of Donetsk — the third election official from there to be abducted. Many local election officials have been threatened, human rights monitors reported.
Officials have said voters will be allowed to switch polling stations in the event of closures and intimidation, but few international observers here expect the vote to go smoothly.
Russian troop drawdown questioned
Meanwhile, Russia's defense ministry said 20 trains and 15 planes full of troops have been moved out of the border area with Ukraine.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday there has been "limited" Russian troop activity near the Ukrainian border that "may suggest some of these forces are preparing to withdraw."
Still, another NATO military official told VOA on Friday that the bulk of the previously deployed Russian forces remain near the border.
"If we see any meaningful, comprehensive and verifiable withdrawal, NATO would welcome it. This would be a first step from Russia into the right direction," said the official, who spoke to VOA from Brussels on condition of anonymity.
"Any withdrawal does not erase or reverse what has happened in recent months. Russia has violated the trust of the international community by illegally invading Ukraine,” he said. “The security dynamic in Europe has been fundamentally changed.”
Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon.