Kremlin-backed candidate elected leader of breakaway Donetsk republic
A Kremlin-backed candidate has been elected head of the Donetsk breakaway republic as Moscow cements its control over eastern Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, acting head of the self-declared Donetsk people’s republic, won 61 per cent of the vote in an uncompetitive election on Sunday condemned by the UK and other Western countries.
Leonid Pasechnik, acting head of the neighbouring Luhansk people’s republic, which is also backed by Russia, won 68 per cent of a vote there, local authorities said on Monday.
The elections on Sunday were called after the previous leader of the Donetsk separatists was assassinated in August. Mr Pasechnik’s predecessor fled to Russia when unmarked troops seized his headquarters in November 2017.
Predominantly Russian-speaking separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions rose up against the new pro-Western government in Ukraine in 2014, sparking a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people. The two sides shoot at each other across a shrinking buffer zone almost daily despite a 2015 ceasefire.
Moscow’s troops helped stop a 2014 Ukrainian offensive to take back the breakaway statelets, and military advisors, arms and funding from across the Russian border have continued to bolster the separatist forces. The Kremlin denies any military role.
The foreign and commonwealth office said on Monday the elections were illegal and violated the Minsk peace accord signed by Russia, Ukraine and the separatists in 2015.
That agreement foresaw “local elections” held under Ukrainian law with observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
“We call on Russia to fully implement its commitments under the Minsk Agreements, to stop providing financial and military support to the separatists, and to withdraw its armed forces and military equipment from Ukrainian territory,” the foreign and commonwealth office said.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Pushilin argued that the vote did not count as “local elections” and noted Ukraine’s failure to pass constitutional reforms stipulated by the Minsk agreement.
He admitted that he had “consulted” with Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to Vladimir Putin who is known as the “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin, before running.
Mr Surkov sent congratulatory messages to the two separatist leaders on Monday.
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Mr Pushilin claimed that Russian influence was limited to political support.
“We always feel the strong shoulder of Russia, which is very important for us,” he said.
But Moscow has by all indications been strengthening its control since Zakharchenko was killed.
Fighting units that previously answered to him have been transferred to the people’s militia and other state structures, which separatist fighters told The Telegraph are overseen by Russian military advisors
A company believed to be linked to the Kremlin has been taking over major energy and metallurgical enterprises that form the lifeblood of the region.
Rivals to Mr Pushilin including separatist commander Alexander Khodakovsky were prevented from participating in the election. But after four years of war and shelling that continues despite the nominal ceasefire, many locals are firmly against reintegration into Ukraine.
Turnout reportedly surpassed 80 per cent in the Donetsk republic, encouraged by the handout of free phone cards and the sale vegetables at discount prices at polling places.
“We hope for peace and are grateful to Russia, which helps us with food,” said a voter who would only give her name as Lena. “We want the world to hear us, to recognise us.”
She said she voted for Mr Pushilin because he had represented the separatists at the Minsk negotiations.
Observers from far-right and far-left parties in Germany, France, Greece and Italy, many of whom are outspoken in their pro-Kremlin views, praised the vote as “real democracy”.