Vow to push forward on Ukraine pact meets defiance on the ground
DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — Two days after an international pact was brokered with the stated goal of easing tensions in Ukraine, the major players met again in Kiev to hash out plans to push it along, but ended their meeting offering little indication of progress.
“It was agreed to move ahead rapidly with the practical implementation of the Geneva Statement,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement released Saturday that referred to the pact, which was agreed to on Thursday in the Swiss city by officials from Ukraine, the United States, the European Union and Russia.
“In this regard the meeting’s participants recognized the need to take immediate concrete steps towards de-escalation. The Ukrainian side informed the meeting on first steps already taken in this direction. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission informed the meeting of its plans to send the deputy chief monitor to eastern Ukraine today to work on the practical modalities of the implementation, as well as on the ongoing work of the monitoring teams on the ground.”
The participants also agreed “to meet regularly.”
The announcement came as pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk dug in Saturday in defiance of the international deal, which is aimed at resolving a crisis that has threatened to devolve into civil war.
The separatists have rejected calls for them to leave public buildings they occupy across eastern Ukraine and to lay down their arms.
Their departure and disarmament are key elements to the pact, which promises amnesty in exchange.
But separatists in eastern Ukraine have neither signed on to the deal nor indicated they intend to comply with it — unless the pro-Western government in Kiev steps down.
It is the people aligned with the Kiev-based national government who should vacate public buildings, not the militants in Donetsk, said the separatists’ self-declared leader, Denis Pushilin.
He said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who signed the deal, was not acting on his behalf. “He signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” said Pushilin, the head of a group called the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Pushilin has called for a referendum by May 11 to ask residents whether they want sovereignty from Ukraine. Such a move could prove popular among those who view Ukraine’s interim authorities — who took power in February after the ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych — as illegitimate.
Meanwhile, the eastern region remains locked in a stalemate.
For the Geneva agreement to succeed, Russia would likely need to persuade protesters to comply, some observers have said.
However, Russia denies it has any direct influence over the armed groups.
The government in Kiev may draw some small encouragement from the fact that pro-Russian protesters have not seized any new buildings or infrastructure sites since the agreement was signed.
Kremlin: Don’t treat Russia like a schoolgirl
Meanwhile, the war of words among Ukraine, Russia and the West has continued.
In an interview posted on the website of Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he won’t back down to Western demands under the threat of sanctions.
But Putin said Saturday that he saw no reason why relations between East and West shouldn’t return to normal, according to state news agency ITAR-Tass.
“This does not depend on us. Or not on us only. This depends on our counterparts,” he is quoted as saying. “I believe there is nothing preventing from improvement of relations and from normal cooperation.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday called on Lavrov to again urge Russia’s full and immediate compliance with the Geneva statement, a senior State Department official said.
During the call, Kerry said all sides should move quickly to implement the pact’s provisions, which include the disarmament of illegal armed groups and the return of illegally seized buildings to their legitimate owners, the official said.
The diplomatic back-and-forth came amid word from a Western official that a company of U.S. soldiers will conduct military exercises in Poland and Estonia. The official, with direct knowledge of the plan, said the exercises will take place in coming weeks. A U.S. military company typically consists of about 175 troops.
U.S. allies Poland and Estonia border Russia, and both countries have expressed concern over recent Russian military movements and its actions in and around Ukraine.
Yatsenyuk, Turchynov call for unity
Ukraine President Olexander Turchynov on Friday criticized the “factions of communists (who have) refused to sign or even vote on the document.”
He and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged them to do so, saying in a joint statement, “We have to do everything possible not to take this treasure of (Ukrainian unity) from our children.”
“We are calling on our compatriots to (reach out) to each other and give up actions aimed at hatred, and come back to (work toward) rebuilding a united Ukraine,” the two leaders said.
Yatsenyuk and Turchynov also spoke of plans to change the constitution, to provide “more powers” and “necessary financial resources” to the regions and to allow for the use of Russian and other languages in addition to Ukrainian.
“We are all different, but we all have one thing in common: We are all citizens of a sovereign and independent Ukraine,” the leaders said.
Acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia told reporters Friday in Kiev that Russia must prove that its intentions in Ukraine are sincere.
“Minister Lavrov did promise that they want to de-escalate, so we will see in a few days if it was (a) sincere promise,” he said.
Deshchytsia said that the Ukraine government’s “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian protesters who have taken control of key sites will continue, but that its intensity will “depend on the practical implementation” of the pact. So far, the show of force has done little to restore control of the eastern region to Kiev.
All sides agreed on Thursday to ask for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a mission in Ukraine, to help implement measures aimed at easing the crisis.
Deshchytsia noted OSCE had “over 100 monitors” in the country.
The European organization released a statement Friday describing the situation in the Lukansk and Donetsk districts as “tense due to the activity of armed opponents of the central government and Ukrainian special forces conducting a ‘counterterrorist operation.'”
The OSCE noted, for example, that the state security service building in Luhansk was occupied.
At a military base in Mariupol, observers saw blood and evidence of gunfire and Molotov cocktails. Local government officials reported three dead and a hospital official said five people had been treated for gunshot wounds, according to OSCE.
Even as he announced the pact, Kerry warned Thursday that Russia could face “further costs” if the situation did not ease in line with the steps set out in the statement. Ukraine’s leaders too must play their part in calming the situation, he said.
Caution, skepticism greet deal
“I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters Thursday.
The United States and its allies “have to be prepared — potentially — to respond” to continued efforts by Russia to interfere in southern and eastern Ukraine, said Obama, who has already agreed to provide nonlethal aid to Ukraine’s military and state border guard service.
But, he added, military options were not on the table, “because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.”
Putin: Intervention still an option
The talks in Geneva were called amid a crisis that has seen East-West relations at their most strained since the end of the Cold War.
This week, Putin said in his annual televised call-in session with the Russian people that military intervention in Ukraine remains an option.
Moscow denies it has any intention of invading but says it reserves the right to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Putin warned Tuesday that Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war.”
NATO has said that Russia has about 40,000 troops assembled near Ukraine’s eastern border.
Peskov, in his interview with Rossiya 1, said Russian troops were moved near the Ukraine border “due to the instability of the political situation” — the first time Russia has said the deployment was for anything other than military exercises.
“It is a country where they just had a coup,” he said, referring to Yanukovych’s ouster, “and any country would take measures to provide security. And also we should remember that Russia is an absolutely free country and has a right to move their military.”
Russian forces supported local defense forces in Ukraine’s Crimea region, Putin said Thursday in his first public acknowledgment that Russian troops had been deployed on the Black Sea peninsula.
Peskov said Putin made this decision after citizens in the majority Russian-speaking peninsula voted last month to align with Russia.
“Crimea was an act of protection of Russian people and their right to have a referendum,” he said.
On Saturday, Putin told Russian state television that he planned to bestow awards on those who supported the Crimean self-defense forces. “Government awards will certainly follow,” he said.
By Tom Watkins, Laura Smith-Spark and Phil Black
CNN’s Phil Black reported from Donetsk, Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported from London, and Tom Watkins wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Greg Botelho, Frederik Pleitgen, Kellie Morgan and journalist Azad Safarov, all in Kiev, contributed to this report, as did Tim Lister and Arwa Damon in Donetsk. CNN’s Elise Labott, Anna Maja Rappard and Tatyana Drotenko also contributed.