Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said they have voted unanimously in favor of holding an independence referendum on Sunday as planned.
“We have just voted in the People's Council... The date of the referendum was endorsed 100 percent. The referendum will take place on May 11,” separatist leader Denis Pushilin said Thursday.
The announcement came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the vote's postponement, saying the move could open the way for dialogue with Kyiv authorities.
Some political analysts say Putin's call and the separatists’ refusal to heed it might have been staged so as to portray the Russian president as having little influence over secessionists engaged in an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The crisis that has led to dozens of deaths in clashes between Ukrainian troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine and rival groups in the southern port of Odessa.
The planned plebiscite seems to mimic a Crimea scenario where a similar vote, denounced by Kyiv and the West as having been orchestrated by Moscow, led to the Ukrainian peninsula's annexation by Russia in March.
According to media reports, three million paper ballots have been printed for Sunday's poll, which separatists plan to hold in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's top security official, Andriy Parubiy, said on Thursday that Kyiv would press on with a campaign to regain control of the country's east.
Kyiv condems vote, dismisses Putin's call
Kyiv has rejected the referendum planned for Sunday as illegitimate, with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk dismissing Putin's call for its postponement as "hot air."
Yatseniuk said Putin's conciliatory remarks made him suspect Moscow was planning some form of "skirmish" to discredit Ukraine when the country celebrates the anniversary of the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany on Friday.
"This declaration by Vladimir Putin put me on guard," Yatseniuk told Ukraine's Channel 5 television. "It gave me a feeling of foreboding. They say one thing and do another," he said, adding that Putin's suggestion was proof Moscow was behind the uprising across Ukraine's east.
Russia has denied playing any role in the upheaval, with Putin saying it was Kyiv's "irresponsible politics" that has caused the crisis.
In an unexpected reversal, Putin on Wednesday also described Ukraine’s presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, as “a move in the right direction.” But the assessment has been dampened on Thursday by Russia’s Foreign Ministry which said the vote would be “senseless” without an end to Ukrainian military operations and nationwide dialogue.
Commentig on tensions in Ukraine, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said that Russia was heading down a "dangerous and irresponsible path" and that the situation in Ukraine was "extremely combustible."
New peace proposals
International mediators took new peace proposals to Kyiv on Thursday as tension in eastern Ukraine escalated over separatists saying they will go ahead Sunday with a planned secession referendum.
The draft “road map” reportedly took no direct view on the referendum, which Western leaders say is illegitimate and inflammatory, but said presidential elections planned by the pro-Western authorities in Kyiv for May 25 were key to stabilizing the country.
The document reportedly calls on all sides to refrain from “violence, intimidation or provocative actions.”
It was drawn up by the Swiss chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and is aimed at giving new impetus to a deal signed in Geneva in mid-April by the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S.
The peace plan says Ukraine has the right to use its security forces “in a proportionate manner” to prevent violence in its standoff with pro-Moscow rebels and should adopt an amnesty law to cover any who end their occupation of eastern areas.
Russian troop presence
NATO and the United States have both said they have seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the country border with Ukraine, despite Putin's announcement Wednesday that Moscow had pulled back troops.
When NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumussen tweeted as much, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted back that “those with a blind eye” should read Putin's statement.
Russia's Defense Ministry said NATO and the United States were misleading the world about the confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv. It said the Ukrainian government had assembled 15,000 troops on its border with Russia.
According to NATO and Pentagon estimates, Russia has been maintaining around 40,000 soldies on its side of the border with Ukraine. The troop presence has drawn widespread criticism from Kyiv and Western governments, which view the deployment as part of efforts to intimidate and destabilize Ukraine.
More drills for US forces
Reiterating on Thursday, that there has been “no change in the Russian force posture along the Ukrainian border,” the Pentagon released details about ongoing and planned military exercises in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
A Pentagon spokesperson said U.S. special operations forces are taking part in pre-planned training exercises in Estonia. The drills are said include weapons familiarization, tactical movement and mission planning.
Special operations drills in Estonia are the first of three such exercises planned in the Baltics this month, the spokesperson said but provided no details.
U.S. special operations forces will also conduct additional previously unscheduled training in Baltics and Eastern Europe over next two months, the spokesperson added.
The Pentagon says the special operations exercises aim to demonstrate to allies that the U.S. "is committed to security and stability" in the region.
Russia has retaliated against U.S. and Canadian sanctions imposed late last month, but will not name those affected, says a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry.
Asked by journalists whether Russia has responded to the latest punitive measures, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the list of those barred from entering Russia has been expanded but added that “in contrast to the Americans and Canadians, we did not make a show out of it.”
He added that sanctions are not a method by which Russia usually operates, but said that “unfriendly actions force us to fight back.”
“The names of those added to the Russian “no entry” list will not be published, but those on the list will find out who is affected when they apply for a visa,” said Lukashevich.
The U.S., the European Union, Canada and Japan have imposed sanctions on Moscow, mostly against officials close to President Putin, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ukrainians want unified country, poll finds
A survey of nearly 1,700 Ukrainians says they want their country to remain united, a Pew Research Center poll
released on Thursday found.
Seventy-seven percent of those polled last month said they wanted the nation's borders to remain intact while 14 percent said parts of the country should be allowed to secede.
While 93 percent of those in the west said the country should remain united, 70 percent of those in the eastern regions agreed.
As for Russia, 67 percent of those polled in Ukraine said it was having a bad influence on their country, compared to 22 percent who backed its role.
The results come ahead of May 25 presidential elections, which Western governments hope can help restore calm in Ukraine and serve as a boost to authorities in Kyiv.
Separatist leader Denis Pushilin said his movement represents the bullhorn of the people and that the east will not accept the government in Kyiv.
Another rebel leader, Myroslav Rudenko, said the decision to go ahead with a secession referendum on May 11 was an expression of the people's will and shows democracy in action. He said he believes the plebiscite will result in a vote to break from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia ordered energy-dependent Ukraine to pay in advance for all future natural gas deliveries, as the cash-poor Kyiv government struggles to maintain economic and political stability.
The Russian Energy Ministry said Ukraine missed a Wednesday deadline to pay down a $3.5 billion energy debt and that all gas sent from June 1 will require cash in advance.
It remained unclear late Thursday what impact the prepayment edict will have on the European Union. Russia supplies about 30 percent of Western Europe's gas needs, with about half of those supplies passing through Ukraine.
The Department of State has issued a warning
to U.S. citizens to defer all travel – both essential and non-essential – to several regions of Ukraine.
The affected areas include the Crimean Peninsula, the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk, and the city of Odessa.
Jamie Dettmer contibuted to this story from Donetsk. Some reporting by Reuters.