Geneva Agreement on Ukraine Barely a Pause in Deepening Confrontation

April 22, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Last week’s announcement in Geneva of a consensus among four concerned parties – the United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the interim administration in Kiev – on a common framework for defusing the Ukraine crisis was widely greeting with cautious hope. It turns out even that modest level of optimism was premature.

The short (just over 200 words) statement was extremely vague, amounting to little more than a general declaration of principles that armed groups should end their occupations of public places and that Ukraine should undertake a broad-based constitutional reform. It included no details on a timetable for implementation, no specific actions to be taken by any side, and no follow-up steps.

Even aspects of the agreement critical to any success were left undefined, perhaps because no real agreement existed. For example, a key requirement is that “all illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.” But what constitutes an “illegal armed group”? Who is “illegally occupying” which “public places”? Who will decide? The agreement gives no indication.

Thus, within a day of the Geneva announcement western governments were denouncing pro-Russian activists in east Ukraine for refusing to leave regional and municipal government buildings – and threatening Moscow with new sanctions if they failed to do so immediately. The activists responded that they were not a party to the agreement and were not bound by it. (Perhaps by design, this echoes the response from protesters on the streets of Kiev when told of the February 21 power-sharing agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and then-Opposition leaders.) They also insisted that since the unelected Kiev administration itself is an “illegal armed group” that took power by means of street violence, it should stand down first: “We absolutely agree that all buildings should be vacated - including the buildings taken by [Prime Minister] Yatsenyuk and [Acting President] Turchynov. If they leave their buildings, we shall do the same too,” said Mr [Denis] Pushilin [of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic]. “Our position is absolutely neutral: if everybody will do it, we will do it as well.”

Not only does the Kiev administration have no intention of relinquishing any power, it has taken no steps to dislodge occupiers of the Maidan (falling literally under the rubric of “squares” in the Geneva agreement). Instead, it has moved to integrate personnel from radical groups like Praviy Sektor into a new “National Guard” – which, having been “legalized” can no longer be considered among “illegal armed groups” that must be “disarmed.”

Perhaps each side simply hoped to use the Geneva forum as a means to achieve some more limited goal. For example, the unelected Kiev administration was effectively treated as representing the state of “Ukraine” for purposes of the negotiations, largely negating Moscow’s pro forma position of not recognizing the post-Yanukovych leadership in the capital. Kiev also needed a breathing space in the face of the embarrassing collapse of its armed “anti-terrorist operation” last week. On the other hand, no mention was made of the status of Crimea, which even western observers noted was tantamount to Kiev’s conceding its loss.

Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Biden arrived in Kiev today to pledge full American support for the Kiev administration and to issue new threats to Russia that “time is short” to keep its Geneva commitments or face additional sanctions. “Now it is time for Russia to stop talking and to start acting on the commitments that they made to get pro-Russia separatists to vacate buildings and checkpoints,” Biden said. Kiev then announced it was resuming its armed action against eastern “separatists” under a newly formed commando group: “Ukraine's interior ministry has reportedly created a special ‘Timur’ battalion to fight separatism in the Luhansk region. Although the unit would appear to take its name from its commander, army veteran and champion power lifter Timur Yuldashev, he said on Ukrainian television it was so named because Timur in the Uzbek language means ‘ironclad’.”

In short, it seems the Geneva agreement has set the stage for more violence, not less. Rather than a genuine meeting of the minds on joint steps to resolve the Ukraine crisis and to engage the U.S., EU, and Russia on a cooperative effort to maintain Ukraine as a viable state, it seems Geneva has turned into an excuse for each side to accuse the other of bad faith. In the end, Geneva may simply end up as a set of talking points for each side as the confrontation escalates further and Ukraine spirals deeper into a political and economic abyss.