The United States issued a scathing condemnation of the elections held on Nov. 11 in the eastern region of Ukraine occupied by Russia, calling it an attempt by Moscow to legitimize its proxies.
“If Russia calculated the November 11 illegal ‘elections’ would lead to international respect for its proxies, the international reaction proves it was mistaken,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The member states of the European Union and Canada also condemned the elections as illegal and in violation of a ceasefire agreed to in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 2015.
“This reaction clearly states that, on the one hand, these elections will not be recognized by anyone. This is a brutal violation of the Minsk agreements,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said. “On the other hand, there is a call for the responsibility of the Russian Federation as the organizer of these elections.”
The Russia-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions announced the winners of leadership elections on Nov. 12. The Donetsk region’s acting head, Denis Pushilin, whose predecessor was killed in an explosion in August, was confirmed as the leader with 61 percent of the vote, while the acting chief of Luhansk region, Leonid Pasechnik, won with 68 percent.
Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov congratulated the winners, according to the separatist press service DAN, though a Kremlin spokesman later said he wasn’t aware that any congratulations had been extended.
Russia disputed that the elections violated the Minsk accord and instead blamed the Kiev authorities for failing to honor its commitments in the peace process.
The conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014, and poisoned relations between the two neighbors.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was not aware any congratulations had been sent to the rebels, but added that it was understandable they wanted to hold elections.
“We are talking about two regions that are completely rejected by the rest of the country and are under an absolute embargo. The Minsk accords are not being implemented by Kiev,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call in Moscow.
Pushilin said it was a turning point in the region’s history. “We have proved to the whole world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield, but also build a state based on real democratic principles,” he said Nov. 11.
Moscow-backed rebels seized territory in eastern Ukraine after street protests toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.
Ukraine and the West say Russia de facto controls the eastern Donbass region by propping up puppet leaders with troops and heavy weaponry, which Moscow denies.
Reuters contributed to this report.