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

It would have been naive to expect that Russian President Vladimir Putin's humble request that pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine postpone their May 11 secession referendum would have any effect. And it didn't: 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 rejected Putin's suggestion.

"It is not our decision but the Donbas people's," said Andrei Purgin, a member of the DPR 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 and the control necessary to organize a real vote. All they have managed to do is to print up some highly ornamented ballots. With the Ukrainian military, police and national guard conducting a cumbersome, bumbling "anti-terrorist operation" in the rebellious regions, even the semblance of peaceful balloting is not feasible. Russia recognized the farcical secession referendum in Crimea on April 16 because a high degree of local support was there for all to see. In Donetsk and Lugansk, the "referendum" is such a bad idea 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 – and the rebels' predictable reaction – are hardly a trade, however: Putin does not expect to buy any concessions this way. His gambit is, more likely, meant to open an important line of questioning: What does the West actually want Putin to do to avoid serious economic sanctions on Russia?

To many Ukrainians and the Kiev government, the answer is clear: Putin must pull out his intelligence operatives supposedly coordinating the unrest, and the locals – just a bunch of misguided folks hooked on Soviet nostalgia -- will immediately disperse. All my Kiev friends, veterans of the Euromaidan, the revolution that ended Viktor Yanukovych's corrupt rule, agree with Yatsenyuk when he says the best contribution Putin could make to peace in Ukraine would be to "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."

Western politicians cannot very well echo these demands because there is no conclusive proof that the Kremlin is in fact directing the rebels. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast quoted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as saying, "Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their ordsrs from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language." The state department, however, later clarified that Kerry had been talking about Ukrainian intelligence. But the "proof" 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 DNR leader and 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 has not been conclusively proven after more than a month of rioting in eastern Ukraine may be a failure on the part of the disorganized SBU and the much more professional Western intelligence services, but the fact that it it is so difficult to pin down suggests that Russia's influence is less straightforward than the sending of "subversive groups." The rioters are clearly in touch with ultranationalist groups within Russia, which may well pose as Kremlin proxies or actually be used by Putin. There is, however, no way right now for the world to tell the Russian dictator: "We know what you are doing, cease and desist." The fact is that no one, Ukraininan intelligence 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 call on the rebels to lay down arms? He can easily do that and face another rebuff from DNR leaders, who are not even faces to anyone in Ukraine. And the rebuff won't even prove Moscow's not controlling them, because they could be getting different orders through clandestine channels.

It is time for the U.S., the EU and the G7 to formulate, clearly and officially, what they expect Putin to do, not say, to avoid the next round of sanctions. I would think they want him to refrain from invading and accept the results of Ukraine's May 25 presidential election. No one, however, has said in so many words, "Do these two things and the heavier sanctions are off." If deescalation, not one-upmaship is the goal, it would help.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net