Ukraine: Kerry bangs heads but Lavrov gains

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Russia’s Vladimir Putin seemed to score a victory at the four-party talks on Ukraine in Geneva today when Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists at a briefing, “Today we didn’t come here to talk about Crimea; today we came here to get something done to reduce the violence” in Ukraine.

Moscow may take that technically correct remark to indicate that Washington has accepted the loss of Crimea as being irreversible, although Kerry emphasized that he has not “given up” on Crimea in any way.

Together with the European Union and the US-led military alliance NATO, Kerry has rattled sabers for weeks. Today, he noted that he did not come to make threats but repeated that the US would have no choice but to intensify economic sanctions against Russia if no progress is made towards deescalating violence in east Ukraine. He demanded concrete signs of de-escalation “over the next few days, over the course of this weekend and the earliest part of next week.”

Encouragingly, the six-hour meeting among the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine’s interim government produced a short joint statement. This was unpredicted since at one point Russia’s Sergei Lavrov seemed ready to quit after little more than an hour.

The statement sounded hopeful. But it also added some confusion rather than highlighting a smoother resolution of what Lavrov says is an incipient civil war between West Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east and south.

Earlier, Ukraine’s Andriy Deshchytsia approached the meeting with guns blazing. He insisted that it should be limited to ensuring that Russia stop supporting “terrorist groups” in east Ukraine. He asked that it should condemn the “terrorists” and ensure that Russia evacuates troops near east Ukraine’s frontiers. Further, it should force Russia’s parliament to withdraw a resolution allowing Moscow to intervene militarily inside Ukrainian territory; and also cause Moscow to withdraw troops from Crimea and annul the decision to annex Crimea.

His demands were so far beyond the pale for Lavrov that wasn’t much to talk about. Details are sketchy but Kerry seems to have banged heads together and emerged with a reasonably good agreement under the circumstances. The accord was based partly on a more pragmatic document from Deshchytsia outlining what Kiev is willing to do.

If the agreement is implemented, all sides will abjure violence; illegal armed groups will surrender arms; occupied buildings will be returned to the authorities; public places will be vacated and protestors will receive amnesty.

More importantly, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE) will start work immediately to supervise application of the de-escalation measures. The EU, US and Russia will send monitors.

Lavrov went along because Moscow does not want to see worse violence and flaring communal hatreds in Ukraine. Above all, he got what Putin has demanded since the crisis began.

The agreement contains commitments to an “inclusive, transparent and accountable” constitutional process that includes “outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.”

Ukraine’s future and perhaps the peace of Europe will depend on how the above phrases are interpreted. For the moment, there is potential for misperception because Kerry and Lavrov were playing to their domestic galleries.

Kerry obtained a Russian commitment to a quick de-escalation in coming days without quite knowing how to prevent new outbursts or to sustain the peace.

Lavrov got a foot in the door of a constitutional revision that might turn Ukraine into a federation in which Kiev, the capital, does not have administrative control over the east and south.

If things go Lavrov’s way, Putin will have got Crimea plus loyal autonomous Russian-speaking cohorts in Ukraine without having to occupy new territory.

President Barack Obama would be left with a fait accompli in Putin’s favor because the Kiev government is in no position to disarm or control the pro-Russian elements in the east and south. In any case, Putin will continue to help them covertly since he already has the Russian parliament’s support for such actions.

Perhaps, today was a good day for Ukraine’s independence and domestic peace but much depends on whether the interim government in Kiev fully understands the power equation within the country and makes it compromises with Moscow.

It is still quite possible that pro-Kiev rhetoric by Kerry and the EU backed by NATO’s saber rattling gives a wrong impression of the extent of Western commitment. A similar wrong impression given to a brash and insecure government in Georgia caused the Russo-Georgia war in 2008, which left Washington wrong footed and faced with a so far irreversible Putin fait accompli.

The Obama administration may have to recognize that Putin is not the only troublemaker in Ukraine. Many of the country’s problems stem from West Ukrainians who would like to rule untrammeled over the pro-Russian east and south.

Today’s statement underlined “the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine”, which is unlikely without peace between Kiev and Moscow. Unless of course, Washington wants to pour billions in aid to bolster anti-Russian governments in Kiev for decades.

Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist

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