Haven’t we seen this playbook before? Pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are demanding a referendum on autonomy from Kyiv, if not outright independence, and apparently plan on conducting it regardless of whether the government cooperates. John Kerry denounced it as “bogus,” but we’ve heard that before too:

The Obama administration denounced as illegal a planned weekend referendum by pro-Russian insurgents pushing for autonomy and independence for portions of eastern Ukraine, as skirmishes continued in several towns with Ukrainian forces trying to retake ground in the region.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday the referendum set for Sunday would be “bogus” and not recognized by the West.

In March, Moscow supported an independence referendum in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which led to its annexation by Russia. Leaders of the anti-government movement say they plan to hold a referendum on autonomy in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, although no preparations for the vote have yet been seen.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, Ukrainian troops tightened a security cordon around a major insurgent-held eastern city but pro-Russia militias acted with impunity elsewhere in the turbulent region bordering Russia, surrounding a major Interior Ministry base and reclaiming a town hall in another city.

Earlier, the Ukrainian government took control of its buildings in the city of Mariupol, but that didn’t last long. CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward stood and watched as Ukrainian security forces abandoned the building, which was retaken by pro-Russian civilians:

The US may consider a referendum on autonomy “bogus,” but the country has an election scheduled for May 25th that may well end up the same. That election came from the abrupt change in power from the Euromaidan revolution in February, when former president Viktor Yanukovich fled Ukraine. The interim government has insisted on holding those elections in order to maintain their legitimacy, but the question now will be how it can possibly take place where Ukrainian writ no longer runs. Juan Zarate tels Margaret Brennan that the failure to hold those elections plays right into Vladimir Putin’s hands:

Right now, it seems impossible to hold legitimate elections in the major cities in the east, which undermines the whole raison d’être of holding them at all. This has turned into a civil war, and none of these questions of legitimacy or sovereignty appear ripe for resolution at the ballot box in the present circumstance, unfortunately. And that most definitely does play right into Putin’s hands, as Zarate says.

Update: Putin pours a little cold water on the plebiscite, and endorses the May 25th elections — at least for now:

President Vladi­mir Putin called Wednesday for the postponement of a sovereignty referendum that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have scheduled for Sunday.

“We are asking representatives in the southeast of Ukraine and supporters of federalization to postpone the referendum scheduled for the 11th of May,” Putin told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday.

He said Ukrainian presidential and mayoral elections scheduled for May 25 were “a movement in the right direction, only if all the citizens of Ukraine understand how their rights will be ensured.”