The Obama administration will hold off on new sanctions against Russia as part of a deal struck Thursday that calls for Moscow to stand down outlaw militias and take other steps to restore calm to volatile eastern Ukraine.
The agreement, reached after more than six hours of crisis talks in the Swiss city of Geneva, is the first major diplomatic breakthrough of the conflict. It arrived right on time for President Barack Obama, who was poised to levy new sanctions despite a reluctance to involve the United States more deeply in the crisis. While surely relieved, the Obama administration remained too wary of Russian ambitions to give the moment much fanfare.
Obama played it down as a “glimmer of hope,” adding, “We’re not going to count on it until we see it.” In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry also hedged, praising the talks with his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union as “a good day’s work” but warning that Washington would have no choice but to return to the sanctions track if Moscow didn’t live up to its pledges.
“It is absolutely clear now that what is important is that these words are translated immediately into actions. And none of us leave here with the sense that the job is done because the words are on the paper,” Kerry told a news conference. “The job will not be done until these principles are implemented, until they are followed up on.”
The agreement calls for the dissolution of outlaw military groups, the return of occupied buildings and public squares, and amnesty for anti-government protesters. The parties condemned extremism and religious intolerance, specifically anti-Semitism, in strong terms, an apparent response to recent reports that Jews in parts of eastern Ukraine had been ordered to identify themselves by faith. Kerry called that development “grotesque.”
A monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is tasked with helping the parties implement the steps outlined in the deal.
Some foreign policy analysts said the administration was correct in exhibiting only muted optimism about the agreement, given the deep mistrust among the parties and uncertainty over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s end game. Russia and Ukraine also have many thorny talks ahead over the degree of autonomy that pro-Russian enclaves in Ukraine would enjoy, and on the sensitive issue of energy debts.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Geneva that the talks left him “hopeful,” but he reiterated Moscow’s demand for long-term constitutional revisions that would protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The country plunged into crisis following the ouster in February of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Pro-Russian militias and protesters have seized buildings and other government property in eastern Ukraine, pushing the country’s weak interim government toward direct military confrontation with ethnic Russian separatists and their apparent backers across the border. The Geneva deal is designed to stave off that scenario, but it remains to be seen whether Russia will follow through on its pledge to stand down forces or whether those militias even would heed such orders from Moscow.
“On paper, it’s a big breakthrough, for sure, and there’s no reason to believe that an agreement like that couldn’t satisfy the interests of fundamentally all sides with significant compromises on all sides,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
However, he added, “the problem that we have is that the Russian efforts in Ukraine have never been transparent and have always been at least semi-denied, so it becomes difficult to assess whether the Russians are actually adhering to it.”
The deal also represents a darker breakthrough moment for the West, which finally appears to acknowledge the new ground truth in Ukraine: Crimea is Russia’s, and there’s little use in asking for its return. U.S. officials have refused to acknowledge Putin’s land grab, calling it only an “attempted” annexation and deeming the action “illegitimate.”
Kerry grew defensive at the Geneva news conference when confronted with the question of whether the West had given up on Crimea. He said U.S. sanctions had been imposed only days ago because of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and said that the U.S. side had made it “crystal clear” to the Russians that deep differences remained over Crimea.
Kerry suggested that the Geneva talks were less about quibbling over Crimea and more about finding a resolution to a crisis that was nearing boiling point.
“We came here to get something done to reduce the violence, reduce the potential for a complete and total implosion and to try to move away from what is a spiraling downwards confrontation that takes nobody to a great place,” he said. “Our hope is that we’ve opened up the opportunity to be able to do that, but no, nobody has left behind the issue of Crimea.”
Russia specialists said the White House was adopting a more realistic approach, realizing that Crimea was gone and that demands for its return would be a dialogue-stopper.
Yet even from a post-Crimea starting point, analysts said, dealing with Russia is a gamble and the administration might still be forced back to the sanctions track. Some are also concerned that suspending sanctions action now means Putin will go unpunished for his most recent provocations in eastern Ukraine.
“Let’s be optimistic, maybe this works and we never have to do that, in which case diplomacy works and that’s great,” said Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a research center. “But a lot of people have judged what’s been going on already as warranting increased sanctions, and now we’re not going to do that.”
For now, Pomeranz warned, “don’t crack open the champagne.”