Last week Russia's President Putin said he believed referendums should not take place in the eastern regions of Ukraine on 11 May. Remarkably, the change of Putin's rhetoric has inspired some hope in many European capitals.
Putin distanced himself publicly from pro-Russia armed separatists in the east, pretending Russia had no influence over them. Unfortunately, his posturings are nothing more than a diplomatic trick and are indicative of the long-term game the Kremlin is playing.
As many European diplomats have observed, Putin's acts regarding Ukraine belie his words. Despite his claims to withdraw troops from Ukraine's border, he did not – according to all the independent intelligence reports of Ukraine, Nato and the Pentagon. A few hours after his "goodwill" commitment, an armoured Russian "Tiger" (wheeled troop transporter) crossed Ukraine's border by force to join armed militants in the Luhansk region. This is just one of a multitude of examples of Russia's direct involvement in the unrest in Ukraine's east. However, this fact is often lost in the western media because of the Kremlin's highly coordinated information campaign on Ukraine.
Those who have lauded Putin's "request" to separatists to postpone the so-called referendum should be reminded that it is not up to a president of a foreign country or a gang of armed militants to decide on a referendum in a sovereign and independent state. If the Kremlin truly wanted a de-escalation of tensions in the east of Ukraine, there are only two principal steps it could take: it must stop supporting armed Russian and pro-Russian separatists; and withdraw troops from the border. That's the core of any roadmap towards a lawful and democratic solution to the crisis.
Both steps are fully within the authority of the Russian Federation and both can be quickly implemented and tracked. When there is a will, there is a way. Apparently there is lack of political will by Russian leadership to practise what it preaches. Instead, Russia is substituting disarmament with a so-called "dialogue".
But let us not be confused. As my colleague, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, said this month, one cannot hold dialogue or consultations under the barrel of a Kalashnikov. No government in the world would sit at one table with armed terrorists. First, Russia must pressure the separatists to stop shooting, immediately vacate buildings, turn in their weapons, and stop terrorising the population.
The Ukrainian government supports dialogue with peaceful civil society groups, but will take strong measures against armed criminals. The major premise of Kremlin's rhetoric today is to mix those two notions and accuse Ukraine of an authoritarian approach, which is utterly ironic. Russia – an authoritarian regime, according to the Economist, and one of the most "not free" states on political rights and civil liberties in the world, according to Freedom House – is blaming Ukraine for a lack of democracy.
Ukrainians' unrivalled longing for democracy was tragically proved by the EuroMaidan events in Kiev earlier this year, and further democratic developments would have continued unhindered but for the intrusion and military aggression of a foreign state. But, with or without Russia's interference, Ukraine will proceed with decentralisation and constitutional reform, as it is within our own interests. There is no doubt that this process would have been much more efficient without Russian guns inside Ukraine and Russian tanks on our border.
However, Russia's reaction to the so-called referendum has been too emotional and short-sighted to match Putin's long-term diplomatic game. His foreign minister Sergei Lavrov's call to "respect" the votes and put them into practice has again proved that the Kremlin supports separatists, disproving Putin's rhetoric.
Last Monday, one of the separatists' leaders, a Russian citizen and intelligence officer, Igor Girkin – nicknamed Strelok – proclaimed himself the commander-in-chief of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and turned to Russia for immediate military aid. He also called for law-enforcers in the Donetsk region to swear an oath of loyalty to this newly emerged state. And he intends to prosecute members of Ukrainian government, among others.
If Strelok is the negotiating party Russia wants to see at Ukraine's round table, we presume that he is not welcome – by Ukraine, nor by OSCE co-facilitators. Why should a Russian special operative who had previously terrorised civilians in eastern Ukraine be the voice of the people? Rather, he is welcome at Ukraine's criminal courts.