The diplomats have a deal on Ukraine. Whether it sticks is very much in doubt.
Pro-Russian separatists in turbulent eastern Ukraine said Friday that they are not bound by any deal, and will not lay down their guns and vacate public buildings — two critical requirements — until the Ukrainian government steps down.
Russia lashed out at the United States for attaching an ultimatum, a matter of days, to the diplomatic agreement. And it remained unclear what level of influence Russia had to call the separatists off.
“There’s no way to know,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director for the Kennan Institute, a Russia-focused group at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy organization in Washington.
The deal represents the best hope to solve the crisis that ignited when Russia took control over, and later annexed, the peninsula of Crimea. Since then, separatists have clashed with Ukrainian security forces and taken over buildings in a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine.
On Thursday, the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met for the first time during the crisis, joined by Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart from the European Union.
They agreed that the separatists should disarm, stop any violence and get out of the buildings they have occupied in eastern Ukraine. In exchange, Ukraine offered amnesty for most of them and guarantees of rights for Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
The United States wants to see progress in days. The State Department on Friday called it a test of the very proposition of diplomacy. President Barack Obama threatened additional U.S. sanctions if Russia does not cooperate.
“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” the president told reporters, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that.”
Russia experts said the skepticism was well-founded.
“There’s lots of details that need to be filled in,” said Timothy Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. “How do you disarm? What will the political institutions look like? Which types of actions can be amnestied?”
Ukraine, with the help of the United States and Europe, will be under pressure to come up with a constitution, hold an election in May, deal with the possible continuation of an armed revolt in the east and wrestle with economic collapse.
“That’s a very tall order,” Pomeranz said. “Any one of those things could take up the entire attention of the country.”
And then there’s Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, in a televised call-in program on Thursday, seemed to play both sides. He said he wanted diplomacy to work, but he also asserted Russia’s historical claim to Ukraine.
Nobody seems to be sure to what degree Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, speaks for Putin, whose closest advisers are said to be a gang of fellow ex-KGB agents.
Crucially, Russia still has 40,000 troops on its border with Ukraine — clear intimidation, even if they never roll across and invade. That is just one way that Russia can keep Ukraine off-balance, even if the separatists abide by the diplomatic agreement.
Russia has every reason to undermine the May election. It still recognizes Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in a popular uprising just before Russia took Crimea, as the legitimate leader of Ukraine.
And Russia can put the screws to Ukraine over an estimated $16 billion that Ukraine owes Russia for natural gas.
But the first test will be whether the separatists back down. Frye said that he believes Moscow could call them off by making a strong show of support for diplomacy.
“At the same time,” Pomeranz said, “there are plenty of Russian speakers who want to use this as an opportunity to express how they feel. Whether or not Russia is able to convince them is an open question.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
First published April 18 2014, 11:24 AM