Russia has announced plans to recognise elections scheduled for next weekend by rebels in east Ukraine, defying the government in Kiev and indicating that the crisis, which began nearly a year ago, is far from abating.
In an interview with the Izvestia newspaper on Tuesday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Moscow's plans saying: "We expect the elections will go ahead as agreed, and we will of course recognise the results."
Two pro-Russian separatist regions, the self-proclaimed people's republics of Dontesk and Luhansk, are holding polls on Sunday to elect leaders and parliaments, exactly a week after Kiev completed general elections which the two regions refused to participate in.
"We are counting on it being a free vote and that it will go ahead unhindered," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said the elections would be "important from the point of view of legitimising the authority" of the regions' rebel leadership.
He also said Moscow was likely to recognise parliamentary elections held by Ukraine on Sunday, although it would wait for the verdict of the OSCE observers.
Dmytro Kuleba, a senior official in Ukrainian foreign ministry official, said Moscow's announcement "undermines" attempts to end a six-month war there.
"Russia's intentions directly contradict the Minsk (peace) accord, undermine the agreed process on deescalation and peaceful resolution, and continue to weaken trust in it (Russia) as a reliable international partner," Kuleba told the AFP new agency.
Thousands have died in street battles between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and government troops in a crisis that was sparked by protests which toppled the Moscow-backed president V iktor Yanukovych.
A peace accord, known as the Minsk memorandum, has failed to end the violence since it was signed last month between Kiev, Moscow and the separatists.
Commenting on the continued violence in east Ukraine, Lavrov said that "there were violations on both sides," largely due to the fact that the sides could not agree a demarcation line from which they should withdraw heavy armaments.