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Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The photocopy machines churning out the ballots for eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty referendum have been clattering around the clock for days. Even the powerful Vladimir Putin can’t stop them.

Despite the Kremlin leader’s plea to postpone Sunday’s vote, the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic said they’ll go ahead with the referendum.

Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized – with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Insurgents who detest the central government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east. Ukrainian forces have mounted an offensive to drive them out, an operation that has left several dozen dead.

Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine’s proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of Ukrainian nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine’s dire economic straits and corruption.

The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych’s fleeing to Russia were for many in the east seen as a putsch and a portent of repression against the region’s Russian-speakers.

“This isn’t our government. It’s the government of those that destroyed everything,” said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48.

Along with the vote in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is due to take place Sunday in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.

The referenda are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia’s annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate both by Kiev and the West.

But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the eastern referenda take place amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.

A poll by the Washington-based Pew Research center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine’s east want Ukraine to maintain its current borders. That suggests the referenda have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest.

However those opposed to the referendum seem likely to ignore it. Some have grown desperate at the anarchy in eastern Ukraine.

“This is a madhouse. That isn’t a particularly literary word, I know, but there is no better way to put it. People are killing one another and we don’t know why,” said 58-year-old retiree Svetlana Amitina.

Putin’s surprise call on Wednesday for the referendum to be put off appears to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists. The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of supporting or outright directing the unrest in the east, while Moscow denies involvement.

“Russia has made it clear it doesn’t want the referendum, so it has no obligation to recognize its results, especially if it fails,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank.

The decision Thursday by the insurgents’ councils to go ahead with the votes reinforces Russia’s claim it is not in league with the separatists.

“Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this, but we are just a bullhorn for the people. We just voice what the people want,” said Donetsk People’s Republic co-chairman Denis Pushilin.

The Donetsk People’s Republic, which arose in chaotic and murky circumstances in early April, claims to want full autonomy from Ukraine, which they say has been led by a “fascist junta” since Donetsk region native Yanukovych was toppled.

To that end, insurgent election officials say some 3 million ballot papers have been printed for the vote that asks one question: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say they decide only after the vote whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

Russian state media describe the Donetsk People’s Republic movement as “supporters of federalization,” reflecting Moscow’s official line that it would like Ukraine’s government to devolve some powers to the regions. But many in Donetsk say they would like their would-be republic to one day join their eastern neighbor. The Russian tricolor often flutters over the several dozen government offices seized and occupied by anti-government groups.

If Putin chooses to dash the hopes of those in his own country and in eastern Ukraine who crave another Crimea-style annexation, his now sky-high approval ratings could suffer. But pursuing expansionist goals, or even tacitly supporting anti-government movements in Ukraine, will likely prompt new and substantially more punitive Western sanctions against Russia.

Donetsk People’s Republic elections chief Roman Lyagin said there will be around 1,200 polling stations and he expects a turnout of 70 percent.

“Preparations are going according to schedule. Almost the entire run of ballots has been prepared,” said Lyagin told The Associated Press.

Campaigning for the referendum has been negligible, largely relying on crude graffiti. Many sidewalks bear spray-painted stencil images of the word “referendum” next to a crossed-out swastika.

The Donetsk People’s Republic has its own radio and television stations and a fledgling online presence, all of which have churned out a steady diet of anti-Kiev invective.

The Donetsk People’s Republic was formed April 7 by pro-Russia activists after the storming of a regional administrative building. In subsequent days, heavily armed men began storming police stations and city halls. Journalists, activists and politicians sympathetic to the government started to go missing. Horlivka city council representative Volodymyr Rybak turned up dead, bearing signs of torture.

A climate of fear has grown, fueled by the now-common sight of gunmen roaming even the regional capital, Donetsk.

“We are remaining quiet, because we are simply afraid for our lives,” said Diana Dekatiryova, a university student. “The thought I have is to stay away from the referendum, because nothing will depend on our vote anyway.”

The resolve of many pro-Russians has been emboldened by Ukrainian government operations to militarily recapture Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk and under the control of the armed Donetsk People’s Republic.

A view shared by many anti-government activists – and eagerly promoted by Kremlin-backed television – is that Ukrainian authorities are shooting people who just want closer relations with Russia.

“They can’t kill everybody. We must cry out. The whole world must learn about this,” said Tamara Soynikova, 59, member of a Donetsk People’s Republic election panel in the city of Kostiantynivka.

In contrast, pro-Ukrainian sentiments are especially pronounced among the younger generation, those with no memory of living in the Soviet Union.

“We were born in Ukraine, we live in Ukraine. What does it matter that we’re Russian?” said first-year law student Arkady Sabronov, 18.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The photocopy machines churning out the ballots for eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty referendum have been clattering around the clock for days. Even the powerful Vladimir Putin can’t stop them.

Despite the Kremlin leader’s plea to postpone Sunday’s vote, the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic said they’ll go ahead with the referendum.

Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized – with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Insurgents who detest the central government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east. Ukrainian forces have mounted an offensive to drive them out, an operation that has left several dozen dead.

Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine’s proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of Ukrainian nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine’s dire economic straits and corruption.

The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych’s fleeing to Russia were for many in the east seen as a putsch and a portent of repression against the region’s Russian-speakers.

“This isn’t our government. It’s the government of those that destroyed everything,” said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48.

Along with the vote in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is due to take place Sunday in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.

The referenda are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia’s annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate both by Kiev and the West.

But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the eastern referenda take place amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.

A poll by the Washington-based Pew Research center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine’s east want Ukraine to maintain its current borders. That suggests the referenda have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest.

However those opposed to the referendum seem likely to ignore it. Some have grown desperate at the anarchy in eastern Ukraine.

“This is a madhouse. That isn’t a particularly literary word, I know, but there is no better way to put it. People are killing one another and we don’t know why,” said 58-year-old retiree Svetlana Amitina.

Putin’s surprise call on Wednesday for the referendum to be put off appears to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists. The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of supporting or outright directing the unrest in the east, while Moscow denies involvement.

“Russia has made it clear it doesn’t want the referendum, so it has no obligation to recognize its results, especially if it fails,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank.

The decision Thursday by the insurgents’ councils to go ahead with the votes reinforces Russia’s claim it is not in league with the separatists.

“Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this, but we are just a bullhorn for the people. We just voice what the people want,” said Donetsk People’s Republic co-chairman Denis Pushilin.

The Donetsk People’s Republic, which arose in chaotic and murky circumstances in early April, claims to want full autonomy from Ukraine, which they say has been led by a “fascist junta” since Donetsk region native Yanukovych was toppled.

To that end, insurgent election officials say some 3 million ballot papers have been printed for the vote that asks one question: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say they decide only after the vote whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

Russian state media describe the Donetsk People’s Republic movement as “supporters of federalization,” reflecting Moscow’s official line that it would like Ukraine’s government to devolve some powers to the regions. But many in Donetsk say they would like their would-be republic to one day join their eastern neighbor. The Russian tricolor often flutters over the several dozen government offices seized and occupied by anti-government groups.

If Putin chooses to dash the hopes of those in his own country and in eastern Ukraine who crave another Crimea-style annexation, his now sky-high approval ratings could suffer. But pursuing expansionist goals, or even tacitly supporting anti-government movements in Ukraine, will likely prompt new and substantially more punitive Western sanctions against Russia.

Donetsk People’s Republic elections chief Roman Lyagin said there will be around 1,200 polling stations and he expects a turnout of 70 percent.

“Preparations are going according to schedule. Almost the entire run of ballots has been prepared,” said Lyagin told The Associated Press.

Campaigning for the referendum has been negligible, largely relying on crude graffiti. Many sidewalks bear spray-painted stencil images of the word “referendum” next to a crossed-out swastika.

The Donetsk People’s Republic has its own radio and television stations and a fledgling online presence, all of which have churned out a steady diet of anti-Kiev invective.

The Donetsk People’s Republic was formed April 7 by pro-Russia activists after the storming of a regional administrative building. In subsequent days, heavily armed men began storming police stations and city halls. Journalists, activists and politicians sympathetic to the government started to go missing. Horlivka city council representative Volodymyr Rybak turned up dead, bearing signs of torture.

A climate of fear has grown, fueled by the now-common sight of gunmen roaming even the regional capital, Donetsk.

“We are remaining quiet, because we are simply afraid for our lives,” said Diana Dekatiryova, a university student. “The thought I have is to stay away from the referendum, because nothing will depend on our vote anyway.”

The resolve of many pro-Russians has been emboldened by Ukrainian government operations to militarily recapture Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk and under the control of the armed Donetsk People’s Republic.

A view shared by many anti-government activists – and eagerly promoted by Kremlin-backed television – is that Ukrainian authorities are shooting people who just want closer relations with Russia.

“They can’t kill everybody. We must cry out. The whole world must learn about this,” said Tamara Soynikova, 59, member of a Donetsk People’s Republic election panel in the city of Kostiantynivka.

In contrast, pro-Ukrainian sentiments are especially pronounced among the younger generation, those with no memory of living in the Soviet Union.

“We were born in Ukraine, we live in Ukraine. What does it matter that we’re Russian?” said first-year law student Arkady Sabronov, 18.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The photocopy machines churning out the ballots for eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty referendum have been clattering around the clock for days. Even the powerful Vladimir Putin can’t stop them.

Despite the Kremlin leader’s plea to postpone Sunday’s vote, the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic said they’ll go ahead with the referendum.

Ukraine has in recent weeks grown perilously polarized – with the west looking toward Europe and the east favoring closer ties with Russia. Insurgents who detest the central government in Kiev that took power amid chaos in February have seized police stations and government buildings in more than a dozen cities in the east. Ukrainian forces have mounted an offensive to drive them out, an operation that has left several dozen dead.

Support for the referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine’s proudly Russian-speaking working class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of Ukrainian nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair at Ukraine’s dire economic straits and corruption.

The occasionally violent protests that culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych’s fleeing to Russia were for many in the east seen as a putsch and a portent of repression against the region’s Russian-speakers.

“This isn’t our government. It’s the government of those that destroyed everything,” said construction laborer Galina Lukash, 48.

Along with the vote in the eastern Donetsk region, a similar and even more hastily improvised referendum is due to take place Sunday in the neighboring Luhansk region. Together they have about 6.5 million people.

The referenda are similar to the one in Crimea in March that preceded Russia’s annexation of that strategic Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula. Like the one in Crimea, they are regarded as illegitimate both by Kiev and the West.

But unlike the Crimean vote, which was held as Russian soldiers and affiliated local militias held control of the peninsula, the eastern referenda take place amid armed conflict. And, critically, unlike Crimea, whose majority Russian-speaking population made approval a foregone conclusion, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a more mixed population.

A poll by the Washington-based Pew Research center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine’s east want Ukraine to maintain its current borders. That suggests the referenda have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest.

However those opposed to the referendum seem likely to ignore it. Some have grown desperate at the anarchy in eastern Ukraine.

“This is a madhouse. That isn’t a particularly literary word, I know, but there is no better way to put it. People are killing one another and we don’t know why,” said 58-year-old retiree Svetlana Amitina.

Putin’s surprise call on Wednesday for the referendum to be put off appears to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists. The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of supporting or outright directing the unrest in the east, while Moscow denies involvement.

“Russia has made it clear it doesn’t want the referendum, so it has no obligation to recognize its results, especially if it fails,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think-tank.

The decision Thursday by the insurgents’ councils to go ahead with the votes reinforces Russia’s claim it is not in league with the separatists.

“Putin is seeking a way out of the situation. We are grateful to him for this, but we are just a bullhorn for the people. We just voice what the people want,” said Donetsk People’s Republic co-chairman Denis Pushilin.

The Donetsk People’s Republic, which arose in chaotic and murky circumstances in early April, claims to want full autonomy from Ukraine, which they say has been led by a “fascist junta” since Donetsk region native Yanukovych was toppled.

To that end, insurgent election officials say some 3 million ballot papers have been printed for the vote that asks one question: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say they decide only after the vote whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

Russian state media describe the Donetsk People’s Republic movement as “supporters of federalization,” reflecting Moscow’s official line that it would like Ukraine’s government to devolve some powers to the regions. But many in Donetsk say they would like their would-be republic to one day join their eastern neighbor. The Russian tricolor often flutters over the several dozen government offices seized and occupied by anti-government groups.

If Putin chooses to dash the hopes of those in his own country and in eastern Ukraine who crave another Crimea-style annexation, his now sky-high approval ratings could suffer. But pursuing expansionist goals, or even tacitly supporting anti-government movements in Ukraine, will likely prompt new and substantially more punitive Western sanctions against Russia.

Donetsk People’s Republic elections chief Roman Lyagin said there will be around 1,200 polling stations and he expects a turnout of 70 percent.

“Preparations are going according to schedule. Almost the entire run of ballots has been prepared,” said Lyagin told The Associated Press.

Campaigning for the referendum has been negligible, largely relying on crude graffiti. Many sidewalks bear spray-painted stencil images of the word “referendum” next to a crossed-out swastika.

The Donetsk People’s Republic has its own radio and television stations and a fledgling online presence, all of which have churned out a steady diet of anti-Kiev invective.

The Donetsk People’s Republic was formed April 7 by pro-Russia activists after the storming of a regional administrative building. In subsequent days, heavily armed men began storming police stations and city halls. Journalists, activists and politicians sympathetic to the government started to go missing. Horlivka city council representative Volodymyr Rybak turned up dead, bearing signs of torture.

A climate of fear has grown, fueled by the now-common sight of gunmen roaming even the regional capital, Donetsk.

“We are remaining quiet, because we are simply afraid for our lives,” said Diana Dekatiryova, a university student. “The thought I have is to stay away from the referendum, because nothing will depend on our vote anyway.”

The resolve of many pro-Russians has been emboldened by Ukrainian government operations to militarily recapture Slovyansk, a city 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Donetsk and under the control of the armed Donetsk People’s Republic.

A view shared by many anti-government activists – and eagerly promoted by Kremlin-backed television – is that Ukrainian authorities are shooting people who just want closer relations with Russia.

“They can’t kill everybody. We must cry out. The whole world must learn about this,” said Tamara Soynikova, 59, member of a Donetsk People’s Republic election panel in the city of Kostiantynivka.

In contrast, pro-Ukrainian sentiments are especially pronounced among the younger generation, those with no memory of living in the Soviet Union.

“We were born in Ukraine, we live in Ukraine. What does it matter that we’re Russian?” said first-year law student Arkady Sabronov, 18.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.

“I have very good vision. But while we’ve noted Russia’s statement, so far we haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.

Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found “no undeclared military activities in those regions.”

“In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations,” Antonov said.

“To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges,” he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.

He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.

Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east’s Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has remained tense after clashes last week that left 46 people dead, Ukraine’s security agency arrested four people accused of funding pro-Russia activists. The agency said the suspects, who were not identified, had financed radical groups in an effort to cause unrest.

Authorities have beefed up security in Odessa, fearing more riots on Friday when ex-Soviet nations celebrate their victory in World War II. A new police battalion and a volunteer unit have been formed to patrol the streets.

A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state – and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting.

The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.

The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.

Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as those who say its impact is positive.

In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.

In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin has described as historically Russian territory.

In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russians surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.

The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Odessa contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.

“I have very good vision. But while we’ve noted Russia’s statement, so far we haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.

Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found “no undeclared military activities in those regions.”

“In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations,” Antonov said.

“To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges,” he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.

He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.

Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east’s Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has remained tense after clashes last week that left 46 people dead, Ukraine’s security agency arrested four people accused of funding pro-Russia activists. The agency said the suspects, who were not identified, had financed radical groups in an effort to cause unrest.

Authorities have beefed up security in Odessa, fearing more riots on Friday when ex-Soviet nations celebrate their victory in World War II. A new police battalion and a volunteer unit have been formed to patrol the streets.

A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state – and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting.

The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.

The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.

Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as those who say its impact is positive.

In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.

In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin has described as historically Russian territory.

In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russians surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.

The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Odessa contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.

“I have very good vision. But while we’ve noted Russia’s statement, so far we haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.

Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found “no undeclared military activities in those regions.”

“In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations,” Antonov said.

“To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges,” he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.

He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.

Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east’s Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has remained tense after clashes last week that left 46 people dead, Ukraine’s security agency arrested four people accused of funding pro-Russia activists. The agency said the suspects, who were not identified, had financed radical groups in an effort to cause unrest.

Authorities have beefed up security in Odessa, fearing more riots on Friday when ex-Soviet nations celebrate their victory in World War II. A new police battalion and a volunteer unit have been formed to patrol the streets.

A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state – and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting.

The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.

The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.

Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as those who say its impact is positive.

In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.

In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin has described as historically Russian territory.

In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russians surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.

The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Odessa contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.

“I have very good vision. But while we’ve noted Russia’s statement, so far we haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.

Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found “no undeclared military activities in those regions.”

“In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations,” Antonov said.

“To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges,” he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.

He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.

Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east’s Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has remained tense after clashes last week that left 46 people dead, Ukraine’s security agency arrested four people accused of funding pro-Russia activists. The agency said the suspects, who were not identified, had financed radical groups in an effort to cause unrest.

Authorities have beefed up security in Odessa, fearing more riots on Friday when ex-Soviet nations celebrate their victory in World War II. A new police battalion and a volunteer unit have been formed to patrol the streets.

A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state – and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting.

The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.

The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.

Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as those who say its impact is positive.

In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.

In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin has described as historically Russian territory.

In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russians surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.

The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Odessa contributed to this report.

Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

KDWN

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they have seen no signs of this.

“I have very good vision. But while we’ve noted Russia’s statement, so far we haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a post on Twitter. NATO has put the number of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine at about 40,000.

Russia accused the West of deliberately misrepresenting the border situation.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said a team of U.S. and Norwegian experts flew over Russian territory along the Ukrainian border on Tuesday and Wednesday and found “no undeclared military activities in those regions.”

“In official protocols in the presence of Russian officials they put down one conclusion, and then they publicly air propaganda cliches accusing Russia of violating its obligations,” Antonov said.

“To prevent further provocations, we pulled back from the border even tactical units that performed training tasks at shooting ranges,” he said, without giving any specifics about troop numbers or locations.

He said Ukraine has deployed about 15,000 troops near the border with Russia.

Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government’s plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a “step in the right direction,” but reiterated Russia’s contention that the legitimacy of the vote depended on Ukraine ending its offensive in the east and beginning a dialogue to assure the east’s Russian-speaking population that their rights would be guaranteed.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has remained tense after clashes last week that left 46 people dead, Ukraine’s security agency arrested four people accused of funding pro-Russia activists. The agency said the suspects, who were not identified, had financed radical groups in an effort to cause unrest.

Authorities have beefed up security in Odessa, fearing more riots on Friday when ex-Soviet nations celebrate their victory in World War II. A new police battalion and a volunteer unit have been formed to patrol the streets.

A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state – and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting.

The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.

The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.

Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as those who say its impact is positive.

In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.

In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin has described as historically Russian territory.

In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russians surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.

The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Odessa contributed to this report.