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People mob polling stations during a disputed referendum in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Pro-Russia rebels conducted the referendum on whether to seek autonomy for eastern Ukraine. / Genya Savilov, AFP/Getty Images

Votes held in eastern Ukraine Sunday to secede from Ukraine could lead to three different possibilities for the country:

Chaos increases - There may be a greater chance of a breakdown of central authority and more reasons for Moscow to question the legitimacy of the central government, says Andrew Weiss, an expert on Russia and Ukraine in the White House under Bill Clinton's administration and a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Pro-Ukrainian operations against separatists resulted in more than 40 people killed in street fighting and a building fire in Odessa, and at least 20 separatists killed in Mariupol.

"This will not gain friends (in the east) for the Kiev government and will build pressure for Russian intervention," Weiss said.

Presidential elections are disrupted or rejected in the east - Separatists are likely to disrupt or block general elections May 25 meant to show Ukraine is largely unified behind a central government in Kiev, said Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think-tank.

Separatists "do not consider the government in Kiev legitimate, so they will not consider elections legitimate," Bugajski said. "They will probably try to disrupt polling stations from being set up, threaten election commission members, block roads and monitors. ? They will start violence against them."

If Ukrainian authorities attempt to use force to implement elections, that could result in widespread fighting and create an opportunity for Russia to intervene by sending in forces as peacekeepers. Russia sent such peacekeepers to Moldova's Transnistria region in 1992, when pro-Russian forces there tangled with a West-leaning central government. Russian troops remain there.

Even if elections do take place in the east, separatists are not likely to accept the results, and the region could wind up like a Transnistria enclave, says Professor Angela Stent of Georgetown University.

Such an outcome "would make it difficult for Ukraine to function as a state," Stent said.

Talks go ahead on autonomy in eastern Ukraine - All of Ukraine's presidential candidates running for elections have said they support greater autonomy for Ukraine's regions, including in the pro-Russian east, and all sides back talks for resolving conflict.

The problem, Bugajski says, is the goal of the separatists and Russia for such talks is much different than the limited local governance that would be acceptable to the government in Kiev or to the West.

Russia seeks an arrangement like in Moldova, "where you have a virtual separate state that neutralizes decisions of the central government," Bugajski said. Such an autonomous state would have "a veto on Ukrainian moves to establish closer relations with the European Union" and would come under de facto control of Moscow.

Putin is looking for "the maximum level of interference that will produce the minimum cost to Russia," said Damon Wilson, a former director of European Affairs in the White House under President George W. Bush and an adviser to the Obama administration.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: What's next in eastern Ukraine?

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