BERLIN Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko urged Europe and the United States to agree on a third wave of sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin supports a referendum organized by separatists in eastern Ukraine on May 11.
Separatists in the Donbass region say they will hold a referendum on secession on Sunday, similar to the one that preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. But such a move could complicate Ukraine's May 25 presidential elections.
"If Russia will support this referendum we need absolutely agreed action about the third wave of sanctions, well coordinated between the United States of America and the European Union," Poroshenko told reporters in Berlin shortly before meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A poll last month put Poroshenko, who supported the pro-European uprising which ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, on 48.4 percent, just short of an absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff in a second-round.
The confectionary tycoon said his priority was to stabilize the situation in Ukraine, where fears of a war are mounting, and left open the possibility of a referendum later.
"We are ready to have even a referendum but not under (the threat of) machine guns or automatic rifles," he said, adding people were afraid to visit polling stations.
"After the presidential election, after restoring law and order, we are ready to discuss any referendum and we are not afraid of a referendum, including the constitutional changes which I ... am ready to discuss with anybody," he said.
Poroshenko also said the Russians "want to invite some separatists to the table" of a second round of Geneva talks but that these people had little support and the only legitimate representative of Ukrainians should be the foreign minister.
He said his visit to Merkel was not about her supporting his campaign to become president, but rather about the chancellor of Germany backing Ukraine's attempts to defend its sovereignty.
Merkel's spokesman said earlier this week that a referendum in eastern Ukraine on Sunday would violate the country's constitution and make an already deadly situation worse.
The European Union and United States have warned Russia it will face additional sanctions against key sectors of its economy if Moscow disrupts Ukraine's plan to hold elections.
The West has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on specific Russians, including some members of Putin's inner circle, and several companies.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Stephen Brown; Editing by Stephen Brown)