Ukraine pro-Russia separatists to hold referendum despite Putin's call for delay as poll shows Ukrainians want unity

Last Updated May 8, 2014 7:58 AM EDT

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said Thursday they would go ahead with plans to hold two separate referendum votes on autonomy for their regions this weekend despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the voting.

The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic announced after a meeting Thursday that it would hold the vote on Sunday as planned.

In Luhansk, separatist leaders decided unanimously that they, too, would go ahead with the planned Sunday vote. CBS News was there as the leaders of the movement said that while they "respect" Putin, they are independent of Russia and insist the "people wouldn't understand" if they pushed the referendum back.

On Wednesday, Putin had urged the separatists to delay any referendum, which many fear 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 eastern Ukraine.

Outside Donetsk city hall, which is currently occupied by separatists, CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward said the mood was somber but resolved.

When Ward asked one young man in military fatigues whether he believed the referendum should go ahead, he replied without hesitation: "Yes, of course."

Ward said many in Donetsk chose to see Putin's remarks as a recommendation, not a command.

"I deeply respect the man," another pro-Russian separatist told her, "but I don't think he's giving us an order, he's just giving us advice."

Ballots have already been printed for the votes, which could determine whether the regions become independent republics -- potentially paving the way for secession to Russia as happened in Crimea.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State said the Obama administration would "flatly reject this illegal effort to further divide Ukraine." He said any effort to hold another referendum on independence for a part of Ukraine "will create even more problems in the effort to try to de-escalate the situation."

Holding a referendum would not be easy, noted Ward, given the extent to which the security situation in the region has deteriorated amid a Ukrainian military offensive to take back buildings from pro-Russian rebels in towns across the east.

Hostility towards the government in Kiev is common in eastern Ukraine, but a strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east, according to a poll released Thursday.

The survey results were released as the pro-Russia forces were considering whether to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy planned for Sunday in defiance of a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to delay the vote. A decision was expected later in the day.

The organizers have said the referendum was on whether to give the eastern regions more autonomy within Ukraine, but left open the possibility of using it to seek independence or annexation by Russia. Many fear that such a vote could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the militants who have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in the east.

Putin also declared on Wednesday that Russia has pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, but NATO and Washington said they saw no signs of this.

The poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington 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.

The poll, conducted April 5-23, has a margin of error of about 3.5 percentage points.