In a context of deepening confrontation and sporadic violence in eastern Ukraine which has so far left three people dead and many more injured, Russia, the United States, and the European Union reached an agreement of sorts in Geneva on April 17. The deal calls on all illegal groups in the region to lay down their arms, and to vacate government buildings and other public spaces they have occupied. In return, the protesters would be offered an amnesty for all capital crimes, and the national government in Kiev would start public consultations on a devolution of powers to the country’s provinces. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is to oversee and help implement the agreement, and will be augmented by monitors from the U.S., Russia, and EU countries. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in the whole of eastern Ukraine remains fraught. That Russian security personnel are in the area is beyond doubt; perhaps in fear of infiltration, Kiev is now refusing to allow male Russian citizens between 16 and 60 years of age entry into the country. Secondly, many eastern Ukrainians are reported as saying that if they speak Ukrainian they risk being assaulted.
It is, moreover, not clear if the parties at Geneva can, or even want to, prevent an escalation of tensions. In a televised phone-in shortly before the talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin derided asset freezes and travel bans on selected Russian and Ukrainian officials; he also stated that Russia’s Parliament had given him the “right” to use armed forces in Ukraine. Another potentially destabilising factor is that Mr. Putin can claim that violence by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine has nothing to do with Moscow. Furthermore, he has said nothing about the actual extent of support for Russia; groups of eastern Ukrainians have started demonstrating against secession and in favour of the status quo. The Western powers, for their part, have made no apparent commitment on certain major issues. One is NATO’s eastward expansion, which Russia understandably perceives as a very serious threat. The U.S., NATO’s dominant member, has done nothing to curb the alliance. The second is that of whether the Kiev government will abide by the Geneva deal, including the requirement that all sides desist from extremism; interim President Oleksander Turchynov has several Ministers with neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic records, and he will not forget that his troops’ attempts to retake occupied facilities in the east ended with their being humiliatingly disarmed by secessionist forces. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s current visit to Kiev is largely symbolic, but so is the Geneva agreement: it says good things, but avoids the things that matter.