Voters are going to the polls in the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk over whether they support state "self-rule" for the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk."
The vote comes after violence on Friday between government and separatist forces in the port city of Mariupol left several people dead and despite Russian President Vladimir Putin saying last week that the ballot should be postponed.
Should Donetsk gain independence or even join Russia, Ukraine would lose important coal- and steel-producing regions that accounts for a large part of GDP. More immediately, there are fears that a yes vote could cause Ukraine to slide into outright civil war.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande yesterday said they would support wider sanctions against Russia - including in energy and financial services - if Ukraine's May 25 presidential election doesn't take place because of the turmoil in the country. The problem for Germany, of course, is its close economic ties with Russia, as profiled by the WSJ.
Putin, for his part, is looking to Chinese investment to help boost Russia's slumping economy as the West implements what have so far been mild sanctions, Bloomberg reports.