President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week warned Russian President Vladimir Putin not to interfere in Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled later this month. However, comments on Tuesday indicate that the threat has not deterred the Kremlin.
In a statement that can later serve as the basis for challenging the legitimacy of the election results, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that it would be “unusual” to hold an election while Ukraine has troops deployed within its own borders.
“In the situation where they use the army against their own population, it's quite unusual,” Lavrov said in Vienna, at a meeting of the Council of Europe. “This is not Afghanistan; this is a completely different situation.”
“The criteria of any process involving citizen choice are well known to all,” Lavrov said, according to the Interfax news service. “Elections and referendums must be free and fair, and they must proceed in a situation excluding violence and under objective and unbiased international monitoring.”
Lavrov added, “Depending on how all of these criteria will be observed, we will shape our attitude to these events.”
In other words, Lavrov has laid the foundation for an argument that would allow Russia to simply ignore the results of the May 25 election if it doesn’t like them.
At the same meeting, Lavrov indicated that pro-Russia protestors who have occupied government buildings in Ukraine have political autonomy. He said Russia would not engage in diplomatic talks to end the violence in Ukraine unless representatives of the protestors are included.
“Those who protest ... want their voices heard," Lavrov said after the meeting. “They want to have an equal voice when it comes to deciding the fate of their own country.”
Meanwhile, pro-Russia protestors announced they would hold a referendum this weekend to declare autonomy from the government based in Kiev. This is the same maneuver Russia used in Crimea, which is now under Russian control but is not recognized as autonomous from Ukraine by the international community.
“We flatly reject this illegal effort to further divide Ukraine,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. “Its pursuit will create even more problems in the effort to try to deescalate the situation."
"This is really the Crimea playbook all over again, and no civilized nation is going to recognize the results of such a bogus effort,” Kerry added.
Though Kerry knows the playbook, he and the rest of the West have been unable to stop Putin’s slow conquest of Ukraine. It’s clear that the threat of new sanctions made by Obama and Merkel last week have done little to deter Putin. If anything, Lavrov’s announcements show that Putin remains one step ahead.
The diplomatic back-and-forth occurred against a backdrop of continued violence throughout Ukraine. Thirty pro-Russia militants and four Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed Monday near Slovyansk as part of an operation to dislodge militants from the town of 125,000. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Frankfurter Allgemeine that the country was now on the precipice of war.
“The threat now is that we are reaching the point of no return – a moment when the escalation cannot be stopped anymore and we literally are on the threshold of a war in Eastern Europe,” Steinmeier said.
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