Members of the Donetsk People's Republic are going ahead with their referendum. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Members of the Donetsk People's Republic are going ahead with their referendum. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin's humble request that pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine postpone their May 11 secession referendum appears to have had no effect. Today, the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, a loose grouping of rebels in the industrial city of Donetsk and surrounding towns of the Donbas region, respectfully declined.

"It is not our decision but the Donbas people's," said Andrei Purgin, a member of the group's leadership. "The people of Donbas now have a chance to perform a heroic feat, and we have no right to deprive them of that chance."

The referendum, and a similar one planned in the neighboring region of Lugansk, was a ridiculous idea from the start. The rebels do not have the skills, the numbers or the control necessary to organize a real vote. All they have managed to do is to print some highly ornamented ballots. With the Ukrainian military, police and national guard conducting a bumbling "anti-terrorist operation" in the rebellious regions, not even the semblance of peaceful balloting is feasible. Russia recognized the farcical secession referendum in Crimea in April, because a high degree of local support was there for all to see. In Donetsk and Lugansk, the referendum is such a bad idea that even Russia won't touch it with a barge pole.

So when Putin, after talks with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, asked for a postponement of the vote, he only moved a pawn. Whether or not the request was for real, or if Putin communicated to the rebels behind the scenes that he was just playing a game with the West, the referendum is not important. Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of "trading in thin air": "No referendum was planned for the 11th in Ukraine. If Russia-supported terrorists and separatists have received orders to postpone something that wasn't planned, it's only a matter of their internal wrangling."

Putin's move is not being offered as a trade for concessions. His gambit is, more likely, meant to open an important line of questioning about what exactly the West needs from him if Russia is to avoid serious economic sanctions.

To many Ukrainians and the government in Kiev, the answer to that question is clear: They want Putin to pull out the Russian intelligence operatives they believe to be coordinating the unrest. At that point, the thinking goes, the locals -- just a bunch of misguided folks hooked on Soviet nostalgia -- would disperse. "Call off the subversive groups that are in Ukrainian territory, condemn the terrorists, order them to lay down arms, withdraw from buildings and surrender to the authorities," Yatsenyuk said. My friends in Kiev -- veterans of the Euromaidan revolution that ended President Viktor Yanukovych's corrupt rule -- agree.

Western politicians cannot very well echo these demands, because there is no conclusive proof that the Kremlin is directing the rebels. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast quoted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that, "Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow, and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language." The State Department, however, later clarified that the "intel" to which Kerry referred was Ukrainian.

The evidence of Russian involvement that the SBU, Kiev's secret police, has presented so far is woefully inconclusive. On Wednesday, for example, it released a video on its YouTube channel, purporting to prove that Russia is coordinating the May 11 referendum. It contains an intercepted conversation between a Donetsk leader and the notorious Russian nationalist, Alexander Barkashov. The latter's views are so far to the right of Putin's that only someone completely unversed in Russian politics could take him for a Kremlin representative: He was even handed a suspended two-year sentence in 2007 for attacking a police officer.

That the Kremlin's direct participation remains unproved after more than a month of rioting in eastern Ukraine may be a failure on the part of the disorganized SBU and the more professional Western intelligence services. However, the fact that hard evidence is so difficult to pin down suggests Russian influence probably consists of something less straightforward than sending "subversive groups" into Ukraine. There is no way right now for the world to tell Russia's leader, "we know what you are doing, cease and desist," because no one, the Ukrainian intelligence service included, knows exactly what Putin is doing in eastern Ukraine.

The chance of a direct Russian invasion is increasingly remote, not least because Ukraine's impoverished eastern regions are not much of a prize if banking and energy sanctions are on the other cup of the scale. So what else could the West ask of Putin? That he calls on the rebels to lay down arms? He can easily do that and face another rebuff from rebel leaders, who again might or might not be getting different Russian orders through clandestine channels.

It is time for the U.S., the EU and the Group of 7 to formulate, clearly and officially, what they expect Putin to do, rather than say, in order to avoid the next round of sanctions. I would think that they want him to refrain from invading and accept the results of Ukraine's May 25 presidential election. No one, however, has publicly said to Putin: "Do these two things and the heavier sanctions are off." If de-escalation, rather than one-upmanship is the goal, saying the words would help.

To contact the author of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.