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What Does the Geneva Agreement Mean for Ukraine?


After huddling for six hours, the four parties at today's Geneva talks—Russia, Ukraine, the E.U., and the U.S.—emerged with something no one thought possible: a deal.

The statement announced that the parties had agreed to “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security”; it called for a broad national dialogue and constitutional reform; called in the OSCE to monitor the situation; and, most critically, it addressed all those separatists holed up in government buildings across southern and eastern Ukraine.

 “All illegal armed groups must be disarmed. All illegally seized building must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”

The Ukrainian government also agreed to give those separatist protesters immunity from prosecution unless they were charged with capital crimes.

This is far more than anyone expected, but as with all such agreements—wait for it—the devil will be in the details. “The idea that everything will end with this is totally out of the question,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

First of all, OSCE can monitor all they want, but they have little ability to do anything other than monitor, unless, Lukyanov points out, they want to change Ukraine’s legal status to a European protectorate.

Second of all, the agreement calls on “illegal armed groups” to disarm. We in the West assume that refers to the pro-Russian thugs in Donetsk and Sloviansk, but what do the Russians mean? Remember, they still don’t recognize the provisional government in Kiev and the Russian media has been consistently calling them the “coup-installed government.” Are they supposed to vacate government buildings in Kiev?

And even if this isn’t the case and that the parties at the table hammered out the definition of the groups they’re referring to, who’s going to enforce this disarmament? As we’ve seen in the last few days, the provisional Ukrainian government has been utterly unable to dislodge anybody from just about anywhere. Now they may have the added confidence of this agreement, but not much ability to follow through.

Moreover, points out, Masha Lipman, a political analyst and editor with the Moscow Carnegie Center, “who speaks on behalf of these men in the east? Who can tell them to disarm?”

Same with the broad national discourse and inclusive constitutional reform: with whom would Kiev be speaking? “Constitutional reform is inescapable. Sooner or later, it has to happen,” Lukyanov says. “But who will talk with whom—there aren’t people in Donetsk who can say they speak for power because [Yanukovych’s] Party of Region that used to represent them has collapsed. The rebels are these murky groups, and no leaders have emerged.” That may have something to do with the fact that their unspoken leader is the Kremlin. That might be a good partner in getting these men to disarm, but how does one engage the Kremlin in Ukraine’s constitutional reform process—and make it look legitimate?

Then there’s the problem of Vladimir Putin, who, even as the talks were proceeding, announced to the nation that he had not ruled out using military force in Ukraine. For him, clearly, the Geneva agreement does not change this.

And, knowing this, Washington isn’t breathing a sigh of relief either. “It’s not bad as a piece of paper, but of course Putin can ratchet pressure up or down at will,” says one high-ranking U.S. official. “And we all assume that he still intends to continue in some form, if only to ruin the presidential elections” scheduled for May 25. The official also emphasized that the U.S. expects both “small signs of abiding by the agreement” and to follow through on implementing additional sanctions against Russia.

“The overall situation remains largely unchanged,” the official added.

In Kiev, suspicion remains high. “It’s most important right now not to believe Moscow,” says Vladimir Fedorin, an independent Russian journalist working in Ukraine. “They’ll take the time to regroup and strike another blow. I’ve internalized this rule in my five months in Kiev. Only joining NATO can alleviate this doubt.”

As for the Geneva agreement, Fedorin says, “I’m afraid it’s just a dead piece of paper.”