The interim Ukrainian government insists it will push ahead with plans to hold the presidential election on May 25. The declaration coincided with reports of dozens more casualties as Kyiv attempts to reassert control in the south and east of the country.
"The Ukrainian leadership is determined to hold the presidential elections on schedule, on May 25," foreign ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis said at a press briefing in Kyiv on May 5, reports Interfax. 500 election monitors have already begun to arrive in Ukraine ahead of the poll, the ministry said.
Meanwhile, over 20 people were killed in intense fighting in the eastern town of Slavyansk the same day. The interior ministry said four soldiers died and another 30 were injured during the fighting. Separately, a rebel told Interfax that more than 20 pro-Russian militia had died as they attempted to defend their positions in the town.
After weeks of limp-wristed response to the takeover of several towns and cities in the east of the country by pro-Russian separatists, Kyiv has gathered its forces and is making a more concerted effort to regain control. The push clearly risks sending the situation spiralling out of control, or even provoking Russian intervention, but Kyiv has calculated that it must have control of the country in order for the presidential election to go forward as planned.
For the West, ensuring that a free and open election takes place is key to Ukraine's immediate future. "The Central Election Commission had registered 543 election monitors representing international organizations and individual states by May 5. Among them are election monitors from Canada, Lithuania, the United States, France, Japan and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe," Perebyinis said.
"Kyiv's objective is clear: it needs to demonstrate that it controls the territory, in order to ensure the legality of the vote," wrote Carnegie analyst Dmitri Trenin on May 5. "Helping install a fully legitimate authority in Ukraine is also a key objective of the United States and the Europeans. There is little doubt that the May 25 poll will be held. A new president, however, will hardly inaugurate stability."
The best chance to achieve a de-escalation of the conflict is seen in efforts to secure a second Geneva meeting before Ukraine votes on a new president, a move proposed by the German Foreign Ministry on May 3.
However, by May 5 there was no reaction from either the Kyiv government or Washington. "No final decision has been made yet, consultations continue, so it would be premature to speculate on the venue or date of the meeting," Perebyinis said.
However, on May 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out more talks. Following a meeting with Ukrainian peer Andrii Deshchytsia at the Council of Europe, Lavrov said there is no point in another Geneva meeting, as last month's accord has not been implemented.
He told reporters Moscow still insists that the April 17 agreement be carried out. Holding further international talks on Ukraine, without including the seperatists, would mean "going round in circles," he claimed, according to the BBC.
The call to turn back the clock is hardly a new one from Russia. It has also persistently demanded Kyiv should return to the agreement struck with Viktor Yanukovych in February, which would see the disgraced former president reinstated and elections held by the end of the year.
"Scheduling an election during a time when the army is being used against a part of the population is not conventional - it's not Afghanistan," Lavrov summed up, leaving little doubt as to Moscow's stance.
Kremlin losing control
However, the Kremlin also appears less sure of its position. There's little doubt that Russia has provided with arms and support to the forces that have taken control of the towns in the east of Ukraine, although the Kremlin has persistently denied allegations it controls those pro-Russian separatists. Yet it now admits it is losing control of the situation.
After the tragic events in Odessa at the weekend, where over 40 pro-Russian protestors died in a fire, it will be "impossible" for Russia or any other country to persuade people in southeast Ukraine to lay down arms, President Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists. "From now on, Russia has factually lost its influence on these people, because it will be impossible to persuade them to lay down arms against the background of a direct threat to their life," he said.
That appears to leave Moscow and the West stuck. US President Barack Obama said the US is continuing to work on the new, harsher sanctions regime, and some of that programme is likely to be rolled out if the presidential election is disrupted. The so-called phase III sanctions will target Russian arms, finance, energy and other sectors, and will do little to help a Russian economy that's probably already in recession.
Yet for the Kremlin, the de-legitimizing of the presidential election - in which polls suggest no pro-Russian candidate stands much of a chance - has clearly become the main tactical thrust. Peskov has already said that a holding a vote as the violence builds is "absurd."
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