After spending Thursday in Geneva negotiating with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and Ukrainian Acting Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia, Secretary of State John Kerry came away with a deal that may defuse the present crisis in Ukraine. A deal that comes just in time for President Barack Obama to give his full focus to his upcoming tour of the Asia-Pacific region during a crucial phase in America's geostrategic pivot to the Pacific, which includes the very large question of China.
But does the deal do enough to provide a framework to settle the crisis that erupted after Russian President Vladimir Putin, quite predictably, reacted badly to the coup in Kiev which, as Putin's long-planned Sochi Winter Olympic reached their peak, deposed democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovich in favor of interests bent on shifting Ukraine away from neighboring Russia into the orbit of the West? And can the party's to the agreement get their partisans inside Ukraine to abide by the deal?
A day after the deal, the answers are, respectively, maybe and we'll see.
The text of the 270-word, five-point deal is presented below.
Intriguingly, Russia per se doesn't have to do anything. Its armed forces are not directed to pull back from Ukraine's border. Instead, it's implicitly expected to get pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine to stand down. All sides are to refrain from violence and disassociate from extremism, such as the anti-semitism which has cropped up in the fascist portion of the new governing coalition in Kiev and in some pro-Russia protest circles in eastern Ukraine. All the illegal armed groups are to disarm, with seized buildings, streets, and squares to be vacated. Those protesters who comply and who have not committed capital crimes are to be granted amnesty. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is to monitor and help implement the agreement. And the new government in Kiev agrees to constitutional reforms and "a broad national dialogue" to include the concerns of all regions and constituencies.
This last is the key to settling the crisis, as it gets at demands for new autonomy for the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine, a move which would largely neuter the central government in Kiev and its now dominant pro-European Union and pro-NATO Westernized factions.
But the language, as you can see, is still rather vague: "The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine's regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments."
And nobody much on either side moved on Friday. Elements of the pro-uprising demonstrators still reportedly occupy some public spaces in Kiev and elsewhere, as do the now more numerous pro-Russia demonstrators in the east.
We'll see in the next few days how much of this agreement gets implemented before Obama's big Asia-Pacific tour begins on April 23rd, taking the president to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The Obama Administration has signaled that, if the Geneva deal is not implemented, it may levy more sanctions on some additional Russian personalities and institutions. But earlier sanctions have had essentially no effect so far. Obama won't try more stringent steps against actual sectors of the Russian economy unless something truly drastic and new, such as an actual Russian invasion of Ukraine proper. There simply isn't support for such US moves from key European allies, even those with power players who want Ukraine in NATO, a long-sought goal of strategists behind the NATO expansion project underway since the fall of the Soviet Union placed proud Russia flat on its back.
The key to getting Russia to back away from any potential invasion of Ukraine is what it has always been, to ensure that Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from Moscow, does not become a leading outpost of the West and NATO. As I wrote in the beginning of March in "Putin's Gambit and Obama's Recurring Russia Problem," Putin would hold on to Crimea and refrain from invading eastern Ukraine while applying pressure to gain his underlying strategic goals.
This is what he has done.
Taking over eastern Ukraine makes little sense for Putin. Here's why.
Because geographic considerations and the overall correlation of forces in this particular circumstance greatly advantage Russia over the US and NATO, not to mention, Ukraine, Putin could order a successful invasion of eastern Ukraine. But that would create consternation in the international community and trigger at least an attempt at heavy sanctions, some of which would be potentially destructive and disruptive and distracting to Russia and everyone involved.
But that's not the real reason for Russia to refrain from invading. The real reason is that annexing eastern Ukraine would guarantee that a NATO member nation would soon be on Russia's border there. For with the most pro-Russia portion of Ukraine stripped away, what remains is the mostly anti-Russia portion. Which, having just been, in the eyes of much of the world, mauled by the Russian bear, would have the perfect pretext to join NATO in a heartbeat. Thus adding the long border with Ukraine to that with the little Baltic states to Russia's NATO headache.
What Russia needs is a Ukraine open to the West but not openly aligned with it, with border territories friendly to Russia. That, after years of proxy political battles in Ukrainian politics, replete with American political consultants and Russian spies, is what it had until Yanukovich was overthrown. (The Russians insist that these dramatic "color revolutions" of heroic protesters demonstrating in picturesque public squares are extravaganzas produced through NGO cutouts by Western intelligence services, a notion not exactly undermined by CIA Director John Brennan's visit with the new powers in Kiev last weekend. Or by the revelation I discussed a few weeks ago that the US Agency for International Development secretly spent hundreds of millions on a plan to destabilize the Cuban government through social media.)
So Russia will get what it needs -- a Ukraine open to the West but not openly aligned with it, with border territories friendly to Russia -- if the rather vague language in point five of Thursday's Geneva agreement sprouts as intended by Minister Lavrov. An eastern Ukraine granted substantial autonomy from the central government in Kiev will deprive the country of anything approaching the consensus needed for Ukraine to join NATO.
And you have to figure that Putin figures that the enthusiasm in other parts of Ukraine for joining the European Union will subside when the fiscal reforms demanded for substantial aid
-- such as an end to fuel subsidies -- hits a population still suffering from economic malaise.
In the meantime, Obama has to hope that the red hots in Ukraine start standing down. One of the last things he needs in his big Asia-Pacific trip is a continued big distraction from a part of the world that is nowhere near as important for American interests.
Geneva Statement on Ukraine
The following Joint Statement was released by the United States, the European Union, Ukraine, and Russia.
The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.
All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.
All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; 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.
Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.
It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.
The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine's regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.
The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.