Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday issued a veiled warning that the Kremlin won’t recognize Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election unless the Kiev government first submits to power-sharing talks with pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov also insisted that Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev recall its armed forces fighting to retake the dozen towns and cities seized by the separatists who Ukrainian and Western leaders contend are armed and instigated by Moscow.
During a speech and news conference in Vienna, Lavrov underscored the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine’s embattled leaders agree to constitutional reform that would shift power from central authorities to the regions. Kiev’s European-allied government has expressed support for reconfiguring the governing structure of the country but not at the barrel of a gun they see as trained on them by proxies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has spoken in favor of constitutional reforms that would cede authority for economic and foreign policies to regional leaders. The issue of coupling a constitutional referendum with the presidential election in less than three weeks was debated by Ukrainian lawmakers Tuesday but rejected. Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman said that the complicated redrafting of Ukraine’s governing structure won’t be completed and ready for a public vote until late fall at the earliest.
Lavrov, clearly advancing Putin’s campaign for gaining influence in the Russian-speaking eastern regions once they can decide their own affairs, said it would be “more logical and fair” for Kiev authorities to postpone the presidential election until a new constitution can be written and endorsed by voters.
“Holding elections at a time when the army is deployed against part of the population is quite unusual,” Lavrov observed.
Putin has denounced the acting Ukrainian government ministers as “coup-installed” and lacking any authority to make decisions on behalf of the divided country. Although Lavrov signed off on an April 17 agreement with U.S. and European officials to “de-escalate” the crisis in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s ministers and state-controlled media have cast the recent fighting as aggression against Russians by a Kiev leadership intent on oppressing minorities.
Ukrainian interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Yatsenyuk took power after Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in late February after a three-month rebellion spurred by his decision to abandon an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.
Yanukovich, rewarded for his loyalty to the Kremlin with a lucrative natural gas discount deal, fled Kiev after agreeing to a coalition government with the political opposition, which included the political parties of Turchinov and Yatsenyuk.
Putin has recently acknowledged that he sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea territory days after Yanukovich fled and took refuge in Russia. After the Kremlin forces occupied the Crimean parliament, communications centers and military bases, they backed local nationalists in staging a hastily organized referendum on secession from Ukraine and annexation by Russia.
Supporters of Ukrainian unity fear that Russia is trying to take more territory by destabilizing Ukraine’s east and promoting secession votes such as the one held in Crimea.
“We are convinced that there is a way out of the crisis,” Lavrov said. “It can be found exclusively on the basis of a national dialogue” between the Kiev government and the pro-Russia rebels.
Kremlin-allied separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions plan a referendum Sunday on whether to restructure Ukraine to give more power to the regions and declare independence from Kiev.
Lavrov spoke during a gathering of the Council of Europe as fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-allied separatists ground to a standoff in Slovyansk, a town of 125,000 that has been the focal point of the fighting.
An “anti-terrorist operation” launched weeks ago has made only limited progress in containing the pro-Russia gunmen, said to number about 800 in Slovyansk. Ukrainian officials blamed the slow pace of recovering territory on the separatists’ use of women and other civilians as human shields to deter forceful moves by the Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Mykhailo Koval, told a Reuters news agency reporter in Slovyansk that the presence of civilians compelled the government to erect “a gradual blockade” to take out the militants when they can do so without injury to civilians.
Still, fighting intensified Monday and earlier Tuesday around Slovyansk. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said via Facebook that 30 pro-Russia militants had been killed in the last two days and that four Ukrainian soldiers died in the sporadic battles. MCT