Sunday, April 20
WASHINGTON (AP) — Not until the final minutes of more than seven hours of negotiating was an agreement struck in Geneva this week to calm boiling tensions along the shared border between Russia and Ukraine. But the deal won't be sealed until its terms are met, and patience is wearing thin as time runs out.
Skepticism that it might work deepened Friday as pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine continued to occupy government buildings in defiance of the accord and showed no inclination to abide by its call to surrender their weapons.
The U.S. and European Union say they will slap Moscow with a new round of sanctions against oligarchs and advisers to President Vladimir Putin by the middle of next week if the separatists do not disarm and give up control of buildings they seized in recent riots against local authorities.
In return, Moscow is demanding guarantees that Ukraine's promised constitutional reforms will give pro-Russian separatists a say in the distribution of government power.
Few believe that either side will get what they want before the clock runs out.
A statement Friday by Russia's foreign ministry accused the U.S. of "trying to whitewash" Kiev's threat to ratchet its campaign against the insurgents. The State Department, meanwhile, said that Secretary of State John Kerry had urged full and immediate compliance with the Geneva agreement during a follow-up chat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Kerry "made clear that the next few days would be a pivotal period for all sides to implement the statement's provisions, particularly that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed and all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners," the State Department said in a statement.
Officials in Washington praised the interim Ukraine government's offer to give regions more authority, including a draft law offering amnesty to all willing to lay down their weapons and to leave occupied buildings.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Russia now has "a responsibility to take steps to call on the separatists to evacuate."
Moscow dismissed the U.S. urging as "highly disappointing" and said Kiev is "set to suppress by force" the separatist protesters in eastern Ukraine, according to a statement published by Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Ukraine separatists said Friday they have no intention of leaving regional government buildings now under their control unless Kiev's leaders step down as well. The separatists believe that Ukraine has been run illegally since late February, when a pro-Western revolt unseated the nation's president, who was loyal to Putin.
Russia's Foreign Ministry repeated that notion.
"It's obvious that when we talk about disarmament, we have in sight first of all the removal of weapons from the fighters of Right Sector and other pro-fascist groups participating in the February overthrow in Kiev," the ministry said in a statement.
The parrying Friday was illustrative of the back-and-forth a day earlier between Western and Russian diplomats in Geneva, who niggled on a single paragraph for 90 minutes.
A recount of the Geneva talks Thursday, as offered by a U.S. official who participated in them, portrays the excruciating efforts to show the negotiations were not a waste of time.
Both sides came to the table with proposals in hand and began combining common areas in each into a single document.
The West's main goal was to de-escalate the crisis. An estimated 40,000 Russian troops have deployed to the Ukraine border, and U.S. officials say the separatists in Ukraine's east have been aided by Russian special forces.
Russia wanted guarantees that Ukraine's constitutional reforms would give more power to pro-Russian regions. Kiev had previously promised that it would give the nation's regions more power but had taken few and relatively feeble steps toward doing so.
Not until the last 45 minutes of the negotiations, which began in the late morning and stretched into the evening, did it become clear there would be enough common ground to produce an agreement.
"We wanted a commitment to de-escalate that we could test," said the U.S. official, who briefed reporters but was not allowed to discuss the negotiations by name.
Experts say Putin may simply let the agreement fail, since the threatened new sanctions are similar to earlier rounds he mocked.
U.S. and EU officials also have prepared tougher and broader sanctions that would hit Russia's financial and energy sectors and inflict a deep wound on its already shaky economy. But those sanctions would hurt Europe, which depends on Russian oil and gas imports.
Such reluctance to hit Putin where it hurts the most helps him buy time to widen his power base, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
"He can always go back to the negotiating table," Aron said. "But with every day, not to mention every week, Russia's position is stronger and stronger. And Putin is spreading roots — militarily, and socially and politically, and that increases his leverage in any future negotiations."
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