Defusing the Ukraine crisis

Foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union agreed in a meeting in Geneva last week that they will endeavor to resolve the crisis in Ukraine through diplomatic efforts.

The agreement said among other things that all sides must refrain from violence, that all “illegal armed groups” in eastern Ukraine must be immediately disarmed and that all “illegally seized buildings” in eastern Ukraine must be immediately returned to Ukrainian authorities.

All the parties to the agreement should make serious efforts so that it will be faithfully implemented, including beefing up the manpower of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is entrusted to help implement the “de-escalation measures” that the accord calls for.

It is especially imperative that Russia exercise its influence over armed groups in eastern Ukraine so that they will strictly follow the letters of the Geneva agreement. Russia should also refrain from threat or use of force and instead seek to resolve the crisis within the framework of the accord.

The Geneva meeting marked the first time that the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the EU have met since the change of government in Ukraine in late February. The biggest reason that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have not made progress is that Russia virtually refused to have talks with the new Ukrainian government, saying that former President Viktor Yanukovych was removed through an illegal coup d’etat and that the new Ukrainian government has no legitimacy.

It is significant that Russia sat at a negotiating table with Ukraine and issued a joint statement with Ukraine as well as the U.S. and the EU. Russia should realize that it now has international responsibility to continue serious talks with Ukraine to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis.

When Russia annexed Crimea in mid-March by using the results of a local referendum as a pretext, there was speculation that Russia would stop harrying Ukraine — at least temporarily. But the situation did not improve.

In early April, pro-Russian residents started large-scale demonstrations in Donetsk and two other provinces in eastern Ukraine, with some groups occupying local administrative buildings. Although the Ukrainian government has started operations to expel the occupying groups, it has not been successful in its operations. Even after the agreement was reached in Geneva on April 17, armed clashes have resulted in some casualties among the pro-Russian residents, and Moscow is laying the blame on Ukrainian authorities.

Russia denies the charges from Ukraine, the U.S. and the EU that its special forces are behind the pro-Russian armed groups. There is no guarantee that Moscow will cooperate in disarming such groups.

Russia is largely responsible for the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine in view of what it has done. Russia mobilized troops wearing unmarked uniforms to help carry out the referendum in Crimea. President Vladimir Putin is vociferously calling for better treatment of Russian-speaking residents in former republics of the Soviet Union.

To help calm tensions in Ukraine, Russia should play an active role in disarming the armed groups in eastern Ukraine. It also should realize that if new economic sanctions are imposed, its economy would suffer. It is already hurting from the flight of capital and falls in stock prices and the value of the ruble. Its gross domestic product grew only 0.8 percent in the January-March period.

The Geneva agreement does not touch on either the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border or NATO’s increased presence on Russia’s western border. Russia withdrew one battalion from the border area and said that it would make further withdrawals.

Appearing on TV on April 17, Putin said, “The Federation Council granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine. I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means.” The statement was a barely veiled threat to use force. It is important that Russia take concrete actions to dispel fears that it could take military action against Ukraine.

As the situation in Ukraine remains fluid, the presidential election scheduled on May 25 will be a critical juncture. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was the largest base of pro-Russian votes, the prospect of a pro-Russian candidate winning the upcoming election is almost nil.

Putin, however, has indicated that Moscow may not recognize the legitimacy of the election results, saying that the election campaign is being conducted “in an absolutely unacceptable way.”

Russia is calling for a constitutional revision in Ukraine to introduce a federation system. Such a matter concerns Ukraine’s sovereignty and no other country should intervene. Given the history of Ukraine and diverse ethnic backgrounds of its people, it is worthwhile for the Ukrainian government to consider a political system that respects individuality of each region. But the prerequisite for such a system is that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are ensured.

Ukrainian leaders must ensure that the presidential election is held in ways that do not provoke charges that pro-Russian residents have been put at a disadvantage. They should seriously seek national reconciliation. Unless a government serious about national reconciliation is established, a peaceful solution to the current crisis may be out of reach. The current Ukrainian leadership has acted too hastily to steer the nation closer to the EU and away from Russia.

Under the influence of extreme rightists, it suspended a law that gave the Russian language an official status in regions where Russians accounted for a certain proportion of the population. In Donetsk, anti-Semitic leaflets were distributed.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, a new government should make utmost efforts to expel the influences of exclusivist political groups irrespective of whether they hail from the right or left.