KIEV, Ukraine – An Easter weekend suspension of security operations by Ukraine’s new leaders against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country is offering an opportunity for tempers to cool and all sides to reflect on what happened at the not-so-peaceful Geneva peace talks on Thursday.
Kiev’s announcement of an Easter truce also has come as a relief to ordinary Ukrainians, who fear the country is on the brink of a wider conflict that could see Russian tanks storming across the border at any moment.
Initially there had been relief at news of agreement in Geneva, but that evaporated quickly on a summery Good Friday here when pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and other eastern cities refused to vacate government buildings they have occupied unless the government in Kiev resigns. Their intransigence raises prospect of an ugly showdown next week when Ukrainian leaders say they will resume security efforts to “restore order” in the east. Ukrainian officials say that if they use lethal force they have no idea how Moscow will react.
In Geneva, Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union agreed to a process of disarmament and an end to occupations by pro-Russian militants in exchange for amnesty for the separatist agitators. But there are deep suspicions in Kiev that the Russians only went to Geneva to stall threatened Western economic sanctions.
Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Andry Deshchytsia, tells The Daily Beast he still doesn’t know what Russia’s intentions really are, but expects they will be revealed if militants in the east continue their defiance. The armed men there are coached and funded by Moscow, and backed up by tens of thousands of Russian troops just across the border.
Deshchytsia suggests the daylong Geneva talks came close to foundering. From his perspective, the problem was insistence by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow is playing no part in the pro-Russian agitation and has no control over gunmen who want Ukraine’s eastern regions to follow Crimea and be annexed by Russia.
“I don’t know what the Russians are planning,” says Deshchytsia. “They could use at any time the same pretext they used in Crimea – that they have to protect ethnic Russians. But it just isn’t true.”
An opinion poll conducted by Kiev’s Institute for International Sociology in the mostly Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine and released Saturday shows a large majority don’t want to be ruled by Moscow, which would seem to bear out the foreign minister’s argument. But a large majority also view the government in Kiev as illegitimate. The poll found a third of the people in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk want rule by Moscow.
“Lavrov denied from the very beginning that Russia is involved at all in the extremist activity in the east. He even didn’t want to listen to the arguments.”
Deshchytsia says he went to Geneva armed with a dossier detailing Russian involvement and outlining the methods of infiltration and influence being used by the Kremlin to encourage and shape the agitation. He says the Russian actions bear all the hallmarks seen in Crimea in February with the appearance of troops in unmarked uniforms cradling Russian weapons.
Lavrov did not want to listen, says Deshchytsia. “And there was no point in passing the dossier on to the Russian negotiators because Minister Lavrov denied from the very beginning that Russia is involved at all in the extremist activity in the east. He even didn’t want to listen to the arguments.”
To get around that impasse at Geneva, the government decided that the Ukrainian intelligence services would share the information they have amassed with their counterparts in the Russian security agency, the FSB. “It is up to Russia to confirm or not their involvement in the agitation,” says Deshchytsia, although he didn’t sound confident the Russians would respond.
The Ukrainian foreign minister wouldn’t be drawn out on the allegations contained in the file, saying only, “it contains details of all the Russian involvement and all the support they have played.” But Ukrainian security sources say the dossier contains among other things details on the more than 40 Russian military intelligence, or GRU, operatives arrested so far on Ukrainian soil and the weapons and ammunition seized after being transported across the border from Russia. The file describes the role of GRU Colonel Ihor Ivanovych Strielkov has played in agitation in the east, including his attempts to suborn Ukrainian soldiers with offers of cash.
The file also contains details also on what Ukrainian intelligence insists is clandestine Russian funding of the pro-Russian separatists. The file says separatists have been given pre-paid debit cards issued by Russian banks, including by the state-owned Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender. Last week, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnytskiy announced on television that his office is investigating 14 banks for financing pro-Russian separatists. Sberbank, which has branches and nearly a million customers in Ukraine, denies any wrongdoing.
Ukrainian security officials say another bank owned by Russia's energy giant Gazprom also is under investigation. And “money mules” have been apprehended carrying large sums of cash for delivery to separatist leaders. In one incident, according to Ukraine’s State Border Service, four Ukrainians traveling on a train from Crimea to Dnipropetrovsk were found with $140,000 in cash. Three other mules from the Crimean city of Sevastopol were detained at a road checkpoint with $400,000 in cash on them.
The dispute over Ukraine’s allegations that the Russians are fomenting unrest in the east wasn’t the only source of argument in Geneva. “The negotiations were very difficult,” says Deshchytsia. Lavrov swung between being cooperative and aggressive.
The most bellicose moments came when the Ukrainians and diplomats from the West raised the issue of Crimea -- or whenever the Ukrainians pushed back against Russian demands for political reforms that would serve Russian interests. “I am ready to inform the Russians about our ideas on a constitution or on how we will protect the rights of Russian speakers,” says Deshchytsia. “But I am not going to discuss details about reforms or accept that Moscow can insist on certain things being put into the text of the constitution or insist on particular local government changes.”
And his predictions for next week, if the separatists don’t leave the government buildings they have seized? “We want to avoid bloodshed and casualties. It will depend on the reaction of the people who illegally occupy buildings and it is the Russian responsibility to deliver the de-escalation message to those people to avoid any confrontation and to implement what Russia agreed to at Geneva.”