Nations involved in the Ukraine crisis pledged an easing of tensions Thursday, opening a possible path toward resolving Ukraine’s future without further Russian military intervention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union issued a joint declaration after hours of talks Thursday in Geneva, agreeing on the need to end violence, to disband “illegal armed groups,” and for Ukraine to undertake sweeping constitutional reforms.
Secretary Kerry framed the deal as a start down the path of de-escalation, but said the test will be whether the “words on a paper” are matched promptly by deeds on the ground.
If that follow-through occurs, the agreement would represent a significant shift in a crisis that has been marked in recent days by the presence of Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern border, efforts by NATO nations to show resolve and support for Ukraine, and upheaval and ethnic tension including anti-Semitism in key Ukrainian cities.
The deal comes also at a vital moment on Ukraine’s political calendar, with May elections that could be threatened by any escalation of violence.
A joint statement, released by the four parties, contains what the ministers call “concrete steps to de-escalate tensions.” The steps include:
• An end to violence. “All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.”
• Disbanding of illegal armed groups. The deal gives amnesty to protesters (unless charged with capital crimes) if they end any illegal occupation of buildings or public spaces in Ukraine.
• Monitoring by the OSCE. The parties agreed that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will track the de-escalation measures. Members of the OSCE mission will go “wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days.”
• Constitutional reforms. Ukraine has pledged a constitutional process that “will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies” – a reference pertinent to Moscow’s concerns about the rights of Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population.
Kerry said it was “grotesque” and “beyond unacceptable” that Jews in one city have been asked to identify themselves – an implicit threat to their safety and a troubling echo of horrors in Europe’s past.
Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "I really hope that I do not have to” exercise what he called a “right” to use military force in Ukraine. In a call-in chat with Russian citizens, he accused Ukrainian leaders of a "grave crime" in using the army in efforts to quell unrest in the east of the country.
The Ukrainian government said three pro-Russian separatists had been killed while attacking a Ukrainian national guard base overnight.
The violence, and Mr. Putin’s comments, signal the challenge ahead to turn an agreement in principle into a reality of de-escalation.
Many experts on Russia and Eastern Europe say Putin has recently appeared determined to hold Ukraine under Russian sway, so a key question is whether he’ll comply with his side of the bargain.
Kerry said that if Moscow does not abide by the agreement, "we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia" in the form of stepped-up sanctions.
President Obama, in a Washington press briefing after Kerry spoke, called Russian forces amassed on Ukraine’s border “a gesture of intimidation.”
But he said the Russian economy is “already deteriorating” because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including what the West calls an illegal land grab of the Crimea region. “It could get significantly worse,” he said.
“We are going to continue to uphold the basic principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity for all countries,” Mr. Obama said.
Kerry said the Ukrainian government has a vision of decentralization that “includes election of local officials,” management of budgets and schools, and other elements of autonomy. “They're committed to it, and the constitutional process will now open up significantly in an effort to bring all of the political players in Ukraine together,” he said.
A key idea there is “together.” Leaders of Ukraine want to see their country unified rather than broken apart by the anticipated shift toward a more decentralized government.
Some members of the US Congress, meanwhile, called for special efforts to safeguard minorities including Jews. Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York referred to “highly alarming press reports from eastern Ukraine indicating that Jewish citizens are being ordered to ‘register’ with the pro-Russian militants in the city of Donetsk.”