The head of Ukraine’s Lugansk separatist region said Sunday it may hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia after Moscow sent troops into its pro-Western neighbor.
“I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic, during which the people will… express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation,” Russian news agencies quoted Leonid Pasechnik as saying.
“For some reason, I am sure this will be the case,” he said.
In talks with Ukraine, Moscow has urged it to acknowledge Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Pasechnik’s statement could herald a shift in the Russian position.
Russia launched its military action in Ukraine in late February, saying it was acting in defense of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics in the country’s east. Russia President Vladimir Putin had days earlier recognized the two regions as independent.
The industrial, mainly Russian-speaking regions broke from Kyiv’s control in 2014 in fighting that over the next few years claimed more than 14,000 lives.
Russia that year annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a pro-Moscow leader was ousted in a popular uprising and a referendum was held in the southern region on becoming part of Russia.
Lugansk, the former Voroshilovgrad, is an industrial city of 1.5 million inhabitants. Together with the Donetsk region, they are grouped in the mining basin of Donbas, on the border with Russia on the northern banks of the Black Sea, which is home to vast coal reserves.
Donetsk, surrounded by slag heaps, is the main city in Donbas. Once named Stalino, it is a gritty industrial hub dominated by mining. It is also one of the main steel-producing centers of Ukraine. Before the war, it had two million inhabitants.
The presence of Russian speakers came about as many Russian workers were sent there after World War II during the Soviet era.