Ukraine's violent crisis deepened Monday, as rebel leaders in the breakaway "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk got set to swear in the winners of hotly disputed elections and President Petro Poroshenko threatened to repeal a law granting the two regions temporary self-government.
The moves put in jeopardy an already wobbly two-month-old ceasefire in battle-scarred southeastern Ukraine, and both sides appeared to be preparing for a return to open warfare. There was heavier than usual shelling around Donetsk's shattered international airport late into Monday night, with the sound of heavy artillery and rocket fire echoing through the city centre.
The uptick in fighting came after a weekend that saw at least two large and unmarked military convoys – comprised of ammunition trucks, anti-aircraft guns and Grad rocket launchers – arrive in Donetsk, apparently from the direction of the Russian border. Moscow has denied accusations that it has provided direct and escalating military support to the rebels throughout the seven-month-old war that has left more than 4,000 people dead and driven hundreds of thousands of others from their homes.
Mr. Poroshenko said Monday that his government would have to change its strategy following the rebel vote, and suggested it could abandon a ceasefire that was agreed to this fall in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. "These pseudo-elections are a gross violation of the Sept. 5 Minsk Protocol," he said in a televised address. "We should re-examine our action plan. I have discussed it with the defence minister."
Mr. Poroshenko said he would also ask his government to abolish a September law that had granted Donetsk and Lugansk temporary self-administration as part of the Minsk process. "We are ready to give the wide authorities assumed by law only to legitimate local authorities but not to the criminals that crowned themselves," he said.
The 12-part Minsk ceasefire agreement was already collapsing – with fighting continuing to rage around Donetsk airport despite calming on other fronts – even before the dispute over Sunday's votes. The Minsk deals calls for "early local elections" in Donetsk and Lugansk, but Mr. Poroshenko maintains Kiev was supposed to oversee those votes, which the Ukrainian government had scheduled for Dec. 7.
Instead, the self-declared "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk went ahead and held their own votes on Sunday, which were conducted with only a handful of representatives from fringe European political movements present as international observers.
Voters were presented with little real choice, and both elections were handily won by rebel military commanders who were already serving in the post of prime ministers.
The votes were quickly slammed as illegitimate by Mr. Poroshenko and most Western governments, as well as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
But the Kremlin said it would "respect the will" of those who voted Sunday. The elections appeared to move Donetsk and Lugansk (which Russian President Vladimir Putin collectively calls "Novorossiya," or "New Russia") another step closer to becoming the sort of unrecognized mini-statelets that Moscow already supports in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, as well as in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in Georgia.
A spokeswoman for the White House said that the United States "condemns the illegitimate, so-called elections held on Sunday" and accused Russia of seeking to "legitimize these sham elections."
Official results released Monday by the breakaway regions showed Alexander Zakharchenko winning direct election to the post of prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, with 79 per cent of vote. Meanwhile, Igor Plotnitsky was elected prime minister of the Lugansk People's Republic with 63 per cent of the vote.
Both men already held the post of prime minister. There was no official turnout figure – a refugee exodus makes it difficult to estimate how many people currently live in the rebel-controlled region – but there were long lines at the polling stations that The Globe and Mail visited in Donetsk.
Many of those who cast ballots on Sunday said they hoped the election would help bring about peace. It now looks like the war-weary residents of this region may get the very opposite.