Russia reached an agreement Thursday with Western powers and the government of Ukraine designed to de-escalate a crisis that has brought Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Marathon four-party talks in Geneva produced a deal under which armed rebel groups in Ukraine would end their occupation of government buildings and public squares and lay down arms, in exchange for “inclusive, transparent and accountable” constitutional reforms aimed at addressing demands for greater regional autonomy.
The government in Kyiv, brought to power by the winter uprising that toppled the pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, and its Western backers have accused Russia of directing the pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine — allegations Moscow has denied. But Russian troops were deployed to help engineer the secession from Ukraine and annexation by Moscow of Crimea, and the Kremlin had also turned up the heat on Kyiv by deploying tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine, warning that it reserved the right to intervene if Russian-speaking communities were imperiled.
The crisis has exacerbated divisions between the country's mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and largely Russian-speaking east, with Russia warning that the country could soon erupt into civil war if rebels are not appeased.
Thursday’s agreement appeared to be the first step back from the edge, part of what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said would be an ongoing process between their respective countries, the European Union and Ukraine’s fragile government to de-escalate the crisis.
Asked how his group would react to the international accord calling for an end to occupation of public and government spaces, Alexander Zakharchenko, a pro-Russia protest leader inside the Donetsk regional government building, told Reuters by telephone: "If it means all squares and public buildings, then I guess it should start with the Maidan in Kyiv” — a reference to the capital’s central square, which pro-Europe demonstrators have occupied since last fall.
“We'll see what they do there before we make our decision here," he added.
The agreement also made no reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea or to the estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed across Ukraine’s eastern border. There was no indication in Geneva of whether Thursday's talks had made any progress in pulling back Russian troops, or in walking back a subsequent NATO decision to bolster the military alliance’s presence on the Ukrainian side of the border.
Diplomatic progress in Geneva came just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a question-and-answer session broadcast on Russian television, in which the Russian president answered three hours of questions from reporters and read letters written by regular citizens — the 12th such iteration of the event. Though it was largely an exercise in state propaganda, Putin used the platform to show his hand with regard to Ukraine.
Referencing the deployment of NATO missile defense systems in the alliance’s eastern members, Putin acknowledged that his actions in Ukraine, and specifically in Crimea, were in response to perceived Western encroachment on what Russia considers its “near abroad.”
“Our decision on Crimea was partly due to … considerations that if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in and they will say: ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with you,’” Putin said.
He also acknowledged for the first time that Russian troops were in fact present in Crimea before its citizens voted for secession from Ukraine. And though he denied there were any Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, Moscow reserved the right to repeat the Crimea scenario on Ukraine’s mainland.
"The Federation Council [the upper house of parliament] granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine,” he said. “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today's pressing issues via political and diplomatic means.”
Kyiv had committed a “very grave crime” by cracking down on protesters, he added, perhaps referring to an incident earlier on Thursday in which Ukrainian forces killed three pro-Russia rebels — a rare use of force from Ukrainian troops, whom Kerry lauded that same day for exercising “remarkable” restraint throughout the crisis.
Kerry warned that if Thursday’s agreement does not lead to concrete de-escalation, the U.S. would take stronger measures against Moscow. To date, the U.S. has imposed only limited economic sanctions on Russian elites. The EU, which has greater trade ties with Russia, has done even less.
Addressing the scenario that Europe might pile pressure on Russia to protect its allies in Kyiv, Putin dismissed the possibility that Europe would jeopardize its natural gas supplies from state-run Gazprom. The Russian president has previously threatened to close the gas pipeline to Europe, which runs through Ukraine. "We sell gas in European countries which have around 30 to 35 percent of their gas balance covered by supplies from Russia. Can they stop buying Russian gas? In my opinion it is impossible,” Putin said on Thursday.
With diplomats in a holding pattern, waiting to see how Ukraine’s rebels react, U.S. President Barack Obama said at an impromptu press conference later on Thursday afternoon: “My hope is we will see follow-through in the next few days, but I don’t think, based on past performance, we can actually count on that."