DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — A pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday's referendum on autonomy despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay it.
While Putin's call on Wednesday to postpone the vote was seen as part of an effort to step back from confrontation with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.
Putin said the exercise involving Russia's nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.
On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in the east.
The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.
The suggestion to postpone the referendum "came from a person who indeed cares for the people of the southeast" of Ukraine, Pushilin said. "But we are the bullhorn of the people."
The organizers have said the referendum was on whether to give the eastern regions more autonomy within Ukraine, but they have left open the possibility of using it to seek independence or annexation by Russia.
Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia has pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they saw no signs of this.
Putin also spoke more positively about the Ukrainian interim government's plan to hold a presidential election on May 25, calling it a "step in the right direction," but reiterated Russia's long-standing contention that it should be preceded by constitutional reforms.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, added on Thursday that the election could only be considered legitimate if Ukraine stops its "punitive operations" in the east and begins a national dialogue on resolving the crisis, the Interfax news agency reported.
A poll released Thursday showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this was true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where the pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy.
The poll conducted last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of people nationwide want Ukraine to maintain its current borders, while nearly as many, or 70 percent, in the east feel the same. Only among Russian speakers does the percentage drop significantly, but it is still over half at 58 percent.
The central government in Kiev has the confidence of only about 41 percent of Ukrainians, with a sharp divide between the west of the country, where support is 60 percent, and the east, where it is a low 24 percent, according to the poll.
Russia, however, is viewed with great suspicion, with three times as many Ukrainians surveyed saying Russia is having a bad influence on their country as say its impact is positive.
In Crimea, which Russia annexed in March following a referendum, 93 percent of people surveyed expressed confidence in Putin and said Russia was playing a positive role on the peninsula. Their confidence in U.S. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was recorded at a dismal 4 percent.
In a parallel survey Pew conducted in Russia last month, 61 percent agreed that there are parts of neighboring countries that belong to Russia. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union left many ethnic Russians in other countries, including a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that Putin had described as historically Russian territory.
In another echo of Putin, 55 percent of Russian surveyed said they saw the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy.
The poll in Ukraine was conducted April 5-23 among 1,659 adults, and the one in Russia April 4-20 among 1,000 adults. Both have a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.
Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.