Ukraine Talks Result in Agreement to "De-escalate Tensions"
Expectations low, tensions high as US and Russia continue to trade accusations and offer competing narratives
UPDATE (1:14 PM EST): Tentative agreement reached in Geneva
Claims of "progress" and "de-escalation of tensions" were the key announcements made in Geneva on Thursday following top-level discussions between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was the first to speak after a nearly seven hour-long meeting to say that a tentative agreement had been reached and a joint document adopted.
“The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens," the document stated.
“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions," it continued. "The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.”
Lavrov acknowledged that the agreement calls for an “immediate start of a national dialogue within the framework of the constitutional process, which must be inclusive and accountable,” Lavrov said.
“Among the steps that have to be taken are," Lavrov told reporters, would be "the disarmament of all the illegal armed groups, and the return of all the occupied administrative buildings” in eastern Ukraine to their rightful owners.
Lavrov stipulated that all parties have agreed that "amnesty for all the protesters must take place, except of those who committed grave crimes."
A key detail of what some have described as an otherwise "vague" document is the focus it puts on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as the agency which all groups agree should play a "leading role” in assisting the Ukrainian authorities and the other interested parties in solving the crisis.
Lavrov affirmed that Russia “will support” the participation and mission of the OSCE.
The full text of the joint statement follows:
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 protesters 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.
Yet, in the following Democracy Now! interview recorded Thursday morning before the joint statement was released, Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University and author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union, paints a far more bleak picture.
Top diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union are meeting in Geneva on Thursday to address the ongoing tensions following the contentious fallout after the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in Kiev earlier this year.
Though this is the first time top foreign ministers are meeting, expectations were being set low by all parties.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the New York Times, just "shrugged, lifting his hands" when asked about the hope for progress at the talks. "The gesture," reports the Times, "appeared to capture the wary mood about the chances that an accommodation between Ukraine and Russia could be achieved at the four-way meeting."
Ahead of the talks, the U.S. announced a promise for new "non-military" aid to the Ukrainian government as its forces continue to contend with pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens in eastern regions who have rejected the new authority in Kiev.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in a live call-in forum in Moscow where he again rejected the western narrative of events in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which broke away from Ukraine and was officially annexed by Russia last month. Putin said that Russia has and will continue to back those in eastern Ukraine who feel threatened by the government in Kiev, but again stated his desire for a peaceful solution.
"I remind you that the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine," Putin said. "I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today's pressing issues via political-diplomatic mean."
Also during his remarks to journalists, Putin said that NATO expansion, as many experts and historians have said, is key factor in Russia's response to the political events in Ukraine.
"We were once promised in Munich that after the unification of Germany no expansion of Nato would happen to the east," Putin said. "Then it started to expand by adding former Warsaw pact countries, former USSR countries. I asked: Why are you doing that?
He continued: "They told me it is not your business; people and nations have the right to chose how they defend themselves. Will they drag Ukraine into Nato? If Nato goes there, Russia will be pushed out from the area around the Black Sea. This is pushing out Russia from this important part of the world. Let’s not be afraid of anything, but we should take that into account, and respond accordingly."
Tensions have fluctuated amid the crisis as diplomatic gestures on all sides have been brushed off and the rhetoric of "civil war" or "regional conflict" have repeatedly been floated.
As the talks began in Geneva, additional violence was reported in eastern Ukraine.
According to the Los Angeles Times, citing local officials, "Ukraine National Guard forces killed three, wounded 13 and detained 63 armed militants who attacked their unit in the port of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine on the Azov Sea."
However, Guardian correspondent Luke Harding, disputed that reporting on the incident. On the ground in Mariupol, he had been to the hospital and reports that only "one person - not two or three as has been reported - died in last night's clash" and that 15 others were being treated for gunshot wounds.
"It's pretty clear there was an exchange of fire at the national guard base in a residential area in the centre of the city," Harding reports. "The fighting last from 9m until 2 in the morning. Pro-Russian separatists tried to storm the building, the Ukrainian troops fired warning shots and came under fire from outside the building. The protest leaders said the shooting came from provocateurs. What is clear is Ukrainian vehicles and other trucks had bullet holes so there was incoming fire. There is a lot of broken glass and there is blood on the floor. The base remains under control of Ukrainian troops."