Ukrainian Rebel Regions Vote, With Fake Election Monitors, Real Anger

(Credit: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo)

Two Russian-backed breakaway regions in southeastern Ukraine held an elections that were hailed by Russia but denounced by the United States, the European Union, and the Ukrainian government.

Exit poll results released by rebel leaders in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic showed overwhelming support for the current leader of the rebel region, Alexander Zakharchenko, and his party.

Though turnout was reportedly high, the vote lacked basic, internationally recognized safeguards for a free election. Armed rebel guards were posted outside - and sometimes inside - polling centers. Sacks of free or nearly free vegetables were offered for those who turned out.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, refused to recognize the election and declined to send monitors. Instead, a shadowy and previously unheard of group calling itself the Agency for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or ASCE, was brought in to monitor and certify the results. Most of the monitors belonged to Russian political parties or extreme fringe European political movements.

Russian media, including the Kremlin's foreign-language propaganda network RT, however, continued to report that OSCE observers were present. The OSCE denied those reports.

After months of war, many in the region are angry at the Ukrainian government for the continued fighting, perhaps fueling the turnout. Ukrainian troops have been accused shelling civilian areas and using cluster bombs, which are banned in many countries (the United States and Russia have not joined in that ban). Human Rights Watch has suggested some Ukrainian military options " may amount to war crimes."

The United States has vowed not to recognize the results of the election. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported last week that the Kremlin's decision to do so may lead to more European sanctions on Russia.

The vote comes as fears grow of a greater Russian military role in the conflict. Russia is already accused by the Ukrainian and many Western governments of sending fighters and weapons to beef up rebel forces.

Last summer Russian help is believed to have saved the rebels when they faced a rout by Ukrainian forces.

On Saturday and again today, large military convoys without license plates were spotting driving towards the rebel-held city of Donetsk from the direction of the Russian border. Those convoys reportedly included large military trucks and missile launchers. The reports led Ukrainian authorities to warn of "intensive" troops movements from Russia into rebel-held areas.

On Friday, a White House statement said it had evidence Russia was sending troops back to the border after pulling them back weeks ago.

"We also caution Russia against using any such illegitimate vote as a pretext to insert additional troops and military equipment into Ukraine, particularly in light of recent indications that the Russian military is moving forces back to the border along separatist controlled areas of eastern Ukraine," the statement said.