The agreement in Geneva was a big first step in de-escalating the Ukraine crisis. But there still remains a lot to be accomplished in order to avert a civil war in Ukraine.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a bilateral meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in Ukraine in Geneva on April 17, 2014. Photo: Reuters

On April 17, the United States, Russia, the EU, and Ukraine reached a historic agreement in which they agreed to work to de-escalate the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In a way, the specific details of the agreement are not important.

The important aspect of the agreement is that all of the sides sat down together in Geneva to discuss possible solutions to the conflict. Specifically, the United States and EU agreed not to impose new sanctions in exchange for Russia working towards a de-escalation of the conflict. In turn, the Ukrainian government promised to work towards a decentralization of power that would allow more regional autonomy.

Two important events occurred just by the main power players sitting down together to discuss the conflict. First, prior to this meeting, Russia had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. After all, they argued that the current Ukrainian government had come to power in a coup d'état, and thus, had no legitimacy. By sitting down and meeting with them, the Russians officially recognized the new Ukrainian government as legitimate.

The second major event that happened at this meeting was an implicit recognition of the fact that Crimea is no longer a part of Ukraine, but rather, now a part of Russia.  No longer is the focus of the conversation on how to get Russia out of Crimea, but rather, how to prevent Russia from further destabilizing the situation in Eastern Ukraine. By sitting down with Russia and trying to resolve the current conflict, the U.S. and EU had to implicitly recognize the fact Crimea is now a part of Russia and will not be returned to Ukraine.

Both of these historic concessions occurred without the need for words. By all of the parties sitting down to negotiate, these two important events occurred. However, before the world celebrates the fact that further civil war has been averted, it is important to be wary of a few factors that might further escalate the crisis in Ukraine. 

First, Russia is very wary of agreements that have been reached with the West to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. In February 2014, Russia had reached an agreement with the EU and U.S., where new elections would be held in May, and then president Yanukovych would have likely been defeated.  Almost immediately the agreement was discarded and Yanukovych was forcibly removed from office in a coup d'état. He fled the country fearing for his life, and a new government was appointed as an interim government.

Second, Russia's mistrust of the new interim government in Kiev was one of the factors that led to it sending troops to the Crimea to protect its naval base in Sevastopol. These events led to the referendum declaring Crimea’s intent not only to secede from Ukraine, but also to join Russia. Thus, until the West lives up to their part of the agreement, it is likely that Russia will be wary of this agreement as well.

Complicating factors even further is that it is hard to know the distinction between Russian provocateurs in Eastern Ukraine and genuine protesters who have taken over buildings and have been defiant to the new government. While Russia may have finally recognized the government in Kiev as the legitimate Ukrainian government, not all of the population in Eastern Ukraine has accepted its legitimacy.

The citizens of Eastern Ukraine have been further enflamed by the fact that the interim government has sent Ukrainian troops in “anti-terrorist” operations to quell the protests and restore order in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have been met with angry citizens questioning the fact that Ukrainian forces would fire on their own citizens. While the government has been very careful in its execution of the anti-terrorist campaign to try to limit civilian casualties, nevertheless, the populace has heckled army units and even a general who was sent to explain the purpose of the “anti-terrorist” campaign.

Even more frightening for the Ukrainian government is the fact that several military units have either deserted or refused their orders to attack the protesters. Recent reports suggest that Ukrainian military units have joined Ukrainian separatists and have been seen waving Russian flags.

When questioned, some of the military units have said that they have refused to fire on their own people, while others have mentioned the fact that military units have not been properly paid and fed, while still other units have discussed the fact that a little over a month ago, they had been sent to dispel those that are currently in the interim Ukrainian government, and that they did not feel loyalty to this government. 

Whether or not these reports are true, the Ukrainian government must tread very carefully and do everything in their power to make sure that they adhere to this agreement. They must now win over the hearts and minds not only of the people in Eastern Ukraine, but also the hearts and mind of the Ukrainian military. They must begin to create a new Ukrainian national identity. 

To create a new national identity, the Ukrainian government must try to get rid of the boundary between East and West. As the mayor of Lviv recently lamented, Ukrainian politicians had successfully separated the country for political gain. It is now time to try and mend that division.

To do this, the government must make clear that it will celebrate linguistic diversity. They must convince ethnic Russians that Russian will be respected, and that there is an important place for ethnic Russians in the new Ukraine. Further, the government must follow through on its promise to decentralize the government and allow more regional autonomy. While it may seem counter-intuitive, more regional autonomy will actually promote a stronger and more cohesive Ukraine.

Ukraine's economic troubles are severe. It is on the verge of bankruptcy. Here is where the West and Russia must help. Russia aided Ukraine prior to the new government taking control, and can do so again.  In a goodwill gesture, Russia can again provide Ukraine with discounted gas, to ensure that people can survive through the winter. The West must help more economically as well. This will ensure that the Ukrainian army is properly supplied not only with weapons, but also food.

Ultimately, if these problems are not addressed, Ukraine will descend further into civil war. It will be a bitter one, and has the potential of forcing other countries to get involved. At a time when we are observing the centennial of the start of World War I, let us hope that calmer heads prevail and that this agreement will be the first step towards calming the crisis.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.