Donetsk: Russia has endorsed a crushing victory for Ukraine's pro-Moscow rebel leadership at controversial polls that the EU slammed as a "new obstacle" for peace in the country's strife-torn east.
Despite warnings from Kiev and the West not to recognise the polls, Moscow moved quickly to throw its weight behind the disputed elections, deepening the international crisis over Ukraine.
"We respect the expression of the will of the residents of southeast (Ukraine)," the foreign ministry said in a statement, cited by Russian news agencies yesterday.
"Those elected have received a mandate to resolve the practical issues of re-establishing normal life in the region." The lightning swift acceptance of the results looked certain to spark a diplomatic firestorm, with a fresh round of Western sanctions against the Kremlin now increasingly on the cards.
Just prior to Moscow's announcement, the European Union's top diplomat Federica Mogherini had already decried the separatist vote as a "new obstacle on the path to peace."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the ballot as a "farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns" and the fear is they could now spell the end for a battered two-month ceasefire between government troops and rebel fighters.
Fresh from claiming victory at the hastily-arranged leadership polls that their gunmen had overseen, the emboldened rebel leadership in the two separatist enclaves appeared in little mood for more compromise.
"Ukraine does not want peace, as it claims. Obviously it is playing a double game," top rebel Alexander Zakharchenko told journalists.
Zakharchenko, already the undisputed leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was on some 70 percent with some half of the votes counted, rebel electoral officials said.
In neighbouring Lugansk region, current insurgent supremo Igor Plonitsky, a former Soviet army officer, was on some 63 percent with around a third of the ballots tallied, Russian media reported.