DONETSK, Ukraine (USA TODAY) -- A council of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk voted unanimously on Thursday to hold a referendum on secession from Ukraine on Sunday despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for a postponement.
"This is a people's referendum. There already is a civil war underway. The referendum will be the only way stop it," Denis Pushilin, the self-styled head of the republic told journalists in a Donetsk government building seized by his pro-Russian militia in early April and turned into its make-shift headquarters.
"We have to look at the context of what [Putin] said that we should postpone the referendum to avoid bloodshed that is continuing every day. But we cannot forbid the people to accomplish this feat," Pushilin said of the plebiscite.
Pro-Russian militia took a number of cities in East Ukraine in April, refusing to recognize Ukraine's new interim government which came into power after pro-European demonstrations, held mainly in in Kiev's Maidan Square, toppled the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Ukraine has launched what it called a counter terrorist operation against the separatists, and insists that the referendum is illegal because being foisted on the local population by an armed militia.
Speaking at a joint news conference with OSCE Chairman Didier Burkhalter on Wednesday, Putin called called on "supporters of federalization in [Ukraine] to postpone the referendum ... in order to create all necessary conditions for this dialogue," according to remarks carried by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Putin's comments were widely interpreted as a bid to distance himself from the pro-Russian militia, which is believed to have the tacit support of Moscow. Russia annexed Ukraine's breakaway Crimea in March after locals there voted in a similar referendum to join Russia.
Although the pro-Russian militia insisted that it was the "people's decision" to hold the referendum, they were also deferential to Putin, with Donetsk People's Republic deputies gathered inside the building saying Putin's comments should be interpreted as encouragement to hold the referendum.
"It's the people's referendum. It has to happen either way. We are all brothers [with Russia]. They've unraveled a wasp's nest on Maidan," said Vyacheslav Ivanov, 47, a former miner who joined the Donetsk People's Self-Defense Militia last month, said outside the building, fortified by barricades of tires and barbed wire.
A new report released Thursday by Pew Research shows a majority of Ukrainians — 77% — want their country to remain a single, unified nation. That holds true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, according to the survey, conducted by Pew in Ukraine. The survey "finds a clearly negative reaction to the role Russia is playing in the country," Pew wrote in a statement, announcing the findings.
A separate survey in Russia "reveals a public that firmly backs Putin and Crimea's secession from Ukraine," Pew said.
In his public remarks on Wednesday, Putin also said that Russia had withdrawn troops from the Ukrainian border.
"Seeking to rule out further provocations, we have pulled back from the border even the tactical units, which were practicing at training ranges," Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow on Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency. "The Defense Minister of the Russian Federation informed his U.S. counterpart about that on the phone."
U.S. and NATO officials said, however, said they have seen no signs that some 40,000 Russian troops had pulled back.
"We haven't seen any evidence of any Russian forces being withdrawn from the areas where they have been stationed in recent weeks," British Foreign Minister William Hague said during a news conference in Tbilisi, the capital of ex-Soviet republic Georgia. "They remain large, near the eastern borders of Ukraine."
In another development, Putin Thursday oversaw a military exercise involving Russia's nuclear forces, Russian news wires reported.