The U.N.'s political chief cautioned Tuesday that planned local elections in two separatist areas of eastern Ukraine next month could contradict international agreements.
"The U.N. urges all parties to avoid any unilateral steps that could deepen the divide or depart from the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreements," Rosemary DiCarlo told a Security Council meeting on the issue.
In 2015, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists signed the Minsk agreement in the Belarus capital. It seeks to halt the fighting through a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops and heavy weapons, and open the way to a permanent, legal and political solution to the conflict in Ukraine, which began in 2014.
De facto authorities in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have announced that they plan to hold elections on Nov. 11.
"As we understand, two separate ballots in both Donetsk and Luhansk are reportedly being planned: one for the "head of Republic" and one for the "People's Councils," DiCarlo said. She said the posts will reportedly be for five-year terms.
She noted that election-related matters are covered in the Minsk agreements.
"I therefore caution that any such measures taken outside Ukraine's constitutional and legal framework would be incompatible with the Minsk agreements," she said.
Western council members echoed her concerns and condemned the planned ballot.
"These sham elections staged by Russia run directly counter to efforts to implement the Minsk peace agreements," said U.S. deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen. "The elections also obstruct and undermine efforts to end the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine."
"We do see these so-called elections as illegitimate," said British Ambassador Karen Pierce. "They are the latest example in the Russian campaign to destabilize Ukraine. They are a clear breach of the Minsk agreements, and they are illegal under Ukrainian law."
Even China, a close ally of Moscow, expressed concerns.
"China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine, and opposes the interference in Ukraine's internal affairs by any external forces," Beijing's deputy envoy told the council.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed the criticism.
"Today, we are witnesses of the latest round of hypocrisy — the total and inexcusable sabotage by Kyiv of the Minsk agreements, over the long term, factually from Day One, has been completely ignored," Nebenzia said. "Instead of recognizing this fact, in the discussion in the Security Council we are discussing the forthcoming elections in November, which are a necessary measure in conditions of sabotage by Kyiv of its political commitments."
He said European and American sanctions imposed on Moscow because of the Ukrainian situation is an invitation to Kyiv to continue undermining its Minsk obligations because Russia will be the one to pay for it.
Ukraine's ambassador, Volodymyr Yelchenko, said holding these "so-called early elections' would amount to putting armed gangs' leaders in seats in illegitimate representative bodies." He said the move is a "provocation" and a "further escalation" of the situation by Russia.
While he acknowledged to reporters later that there is little Kyiv authorities can do to stop the voting from going forward, he said the results would be null and void and not be recognized by Ukraine or the international community.
After a brief calm over the summer months, the U.N. said during the past six weeks, cease-fire violations have spiked, and casualty levels have risen. It also reports increased tensions in the Sea of Azov, warning there is a "need to avoid any risk of escalation, provocation or miscalculation."
The Kyiv government has been clashing with Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The United Nations says more than 3,000 civilians have been killed, and up to 9,000 injured since the start of the conflict.