(CNSNews.com) – Just days after the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union sealed an agreement on the Ukraine crisis, the deal appears to be in trouble, following an outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine and refusal by pro-Moscow separatists occupying government facilities to stand down.
The Russian and Ukrainian governments blamed each other for Sunday’s incident, in which at least three people were killed and several injured when unidentified gunmen attacked a checkpoint manned by separatists outside the city of Slovyansk.
Russia said the Ukraine authorities were not keeping to the agreement reached Thursday in Geneva, which said that “all sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions.”
Ukraine’s interim government said criminals supported by Russian intelligence agencies provoked the violence.
A separatist leader in Slovyansk urged Moscow to send in “peacekeeping” forces.
Further complicating the situation, Washington and Moscow have differing interpretations of a key element in the Geneva agreement – a clause stating that “all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
U.S. officials say this clearly refers to pro-Russian separatists occupying government buildings and public spaces in eastern cities. But Moscow says it also applies to pro-Western demonstrators who continue to occupy Maidan (Independence) square in Kiev, where some have said they will remain until elections are held next month.
Russia’s view is being echoed by some pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, who have said they will only vacate the premises they are occupying if the Maidan protests end.
The State Department rejected that interpretation: “There is no parallel whatsoever between the armed and illegal seizures of government buildings, streets, and public spaces in eastern Ukraine and the legal and peaceful protests [in Kiev],” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Friday.
Nonetheless, separatists have refused to leave the occupied areas or to surrender weapons; on the contrary those in the Donetsk region seized a broadcasting facility at the weekend, enabling them to block Ukrainian TV channels and allowing only Russian ones to be viewed, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported.
(This isn’t the first time an agreement forged between the Obama and Putin administrations on an international crisis is looking shaky from the outset because of differing interpretations.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played a key role in talks – also in Geneva – to hammer out an agreement in June 2012 on negotiating an end to the Syrian civil war.
That document called for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria on the basis of “mutual consent” between representatives of the regime and the rebels but said nothing about the future of President Bashar Assad, Russia’s ally. The U.S. said afterwards that it was self-evident rebels would never agree to a future role for Assad, but Russia rejected that view, observing simply that the communique did not say anything about Assad.)
Another evident gap in Thursday’s Geneva agreement on Ukraine – apart from its silence on Crimea and on the Russian troops amassed near Ukraine’s border – is the absence of a timeframe with specified dates for implementation. The text calls simply for the so-called “de-escalation measures” to begin “in the coming days.”
When he briefed reporters after the Geneva talks, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear his understanding that this meant action must begin as soon as “this weekend.”
“I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov today that if we’re not able to see progress on the immediate efforts to be able to implement the principles of this agreement this weekend, then we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia,” he said.
Later in the briefing, he added that the steps need to be seen to have begun “in the next few days, over the course of this weekend and the earliest part of next week.”
The “further costs” Kerry referred to could include sanctions directed against specific sectors of the Russian economy. These “sectoral” sanctions were authorized under an executive order signed by President Obama exactly one month ago, on March 20, but despite repeated warnings by U.S. officials they have yet to be imposed.