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Opinion: Putin's words have no effect

It appeared that Russia wanted to stop the illegal "referendum" in eastern Ukraine. But the separatists didn't play along. There will be no peace without disarming this group, DW's Bernd Johann says.

Bernd Johann

Bernd Johann heads up DW's Ukrainian desk

It was just a vague shimmer of hope: For a brief moment, one got the impression the illegal "referendum" being run by the separatists in eastern Ukraine could be stopped. Vladimir Putin himself awakened this hope by saying - after meeting with OCSE head Didier Burkhalter, who has been mediating in the crisis - that pro-Russian forces should delay a "ballot" on independence for the self-proclaimed "people's republic" of Donetsk and Luhansk, planned for May 11.

For the first time, Putin even said the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine could be the "right step." The Russian army is pulling back from the Ukrainian border, he added.

Now, signs point once again to escalation. And the conflict in eastern Ukraine could now dramatically intensify. Separatists rejected Putin's suggestion. Does the head of the Kremlin have no influence on what happens in eastern Ukraine? Until now, the actions of pro-Russian groups there, and Moscow's statements regarding them, seemed well-rehearsed. It's difficult to believe the separatists have now reached their decision without endorsement from Moscow.

Ballot farce will inflame conflict

Putin speaks of diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution. But until now, he's done nothing to deescalate the situation. On the contrary: For a long time he denied Russia was involved in the Crimean uprising. Then, with support from armed separatists, he took Crimea from Ukraine.

Since then, Putin has consistently acted as a proponent of militant groups that now seek to break off parts of Ukraine's east. Russian troops again threaten to invade Ukraine. These soldiers are stationed directly on Ukraine's border, ready to spring into action, despite Putin's hinting at retreat. There's no discernible evidence of that, says NATO - which should know.

It's completely unclear how the separatists in eastern Ukraine intend to carry out their ballot farce this coming Sunday (11.05.2014). Since they have no access to voter registries and control only parts of eastern Ukraine, it could actually have been the best move to delay the vote.

But they didn't want that. They appear to not be seeking out any opportunity for dialogue. It seems they'd prefer to induce a decision on the battlefield - with devastating consequences for people in the region.

Separatists offer no solutions

The militant groups have not presented any political concepts. They occupy some buildings and have forcefully taken hostage residents of the small city of Slovyansk. But at this point, they should really be clarifying to the people of eastern Ukraine how they envision themselves, politically and economically.

But they're not doing that. That makes the separatists stand quite isolated. The vast majority of the population in eastern Ukraine has remained silent. People there are at least as afraid of the armed groups as they are of the military out of Kyiv.

Ukraine's transitional government has the right to act against the separatists. But it, as well, must offer political and economic prospects for the east. Militant forces, as well as Russian propaganda, are taking advantage of the considerable mistrust toward Kyiv.

A peaceful solution in eastern Ukraine is only possible if the separatists lay down their weapons. Moscow will also have to commit itself to this; only Russia has the necessary influence there. As long as nothing is done to that end, there is no reason for the government in Kyiv - or for Europe and the West - to trust Putin.

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