Ukraine tensions spike as Russia backs rebel vote

MOSCOW- Moscow and Kiev are set to crunch hold talks over a gas dispute Wednesday, a day after Russia ratcheted up tensions by saying it will recognise separatist polls in east Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Izvestia newspaper on Tuesday that the rebel elections, due to take place this weekend, should “go ahead as agreed” and Russia will “recognise the results”.

The remarks were seen as one of Moscow’s most overt acts of support to date for the separatists in east Ukraine and came as the European Union decided to maintain its punishing sanctions on Russia.

Representatives from both Kiev and Moscow are on Wednesday set to attend EU-brokered talks in Brussels aimed at resolving a bitter dispute over gas, with fears that Moscow may in the coming months halt crucial energy supplies to Europe.

Lavrov is also set to meet Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) human rights chief Michael Georg Link on Wednesday, as Moscow faces rising Western pressure over its alleged involvement in Ukraine.

Russia rejects Western accusations that it is behind the armed uprising in Ukraine’s east, in which around 3,700 people have been killed since April.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow’s recognition of the rebel vote would be “a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists” in the truce agreement signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk on September 5.