Harriet Salem in Donetsk -
In a case of the difficulty of trying to put the genie back in the bottle, Denis Pushilin, the self-styled leader of the unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic, tells bne that armed pro-Russian rebels will not leave occupied state buildings across Ukraine’s east until the government in Kyiv steps down.
Pushilin’s comments cast further doubt over the deal hashed out during the four-waynegotiations between Ukraine, Russia, the EU and US on April 17. At the meeting in Geneva, all the present parties agreed a number of immediate steps aimed at calming the tensions that have rocked eastern Ukraine since the new, pro-EU government took power in February after the former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. Key points regarding the pro-Russian separatists in the agreement include a commitment to disarming illegal groups and vacating illegally seized buildings. Kyiv too made concessions, offering an amnesty to all anti-government protesters that have not committed a capital offence.
Already, both signs are pointing the finger at each other. On April 18, the US threatened tougher economic sanctions if Russia fails to abide by the new agreement; the Kremlin responded by accusing the White House of treating Moscow like a "guilty schoolboy" over the deal, according to the BBC.
The deal followed a disasterous bid by the new government to dislodge the rebels in a two-day “anti-terrorism” operation. The mission ended abruptly on April 16 when a crowd of angry locals managed to grind a column of Ukrainian military APCs to a halt by a railway line on the outskirts of Kramatorsk. Unwilling, or unable, to fight back, the Ukrainian soldiers were disarmed by the mob and sent back to their native Dnipropetrovsk in humiliation. Another convoy was captured on the road to Sloviansk and their arms and military vehicles seized by the rebels. Ukraine's foreign minister said "anti-terrorist" operations in the east would be put on hold over Easter.
Speaking at a packed press conference on April 18, Pushilin delivered a long, rambling speech thanking the EU for “awakening the Russian bear” and claiming that “double standards” were being applied since the government in Kyiv had also “illegally occupied buildings and seized power”.
Ludicrously, Pushilin claimed that the so-called people’s movement was peaceful. “Why is it that they call themselves heroes and we are terrorists and criminals?” he asked. Pro-Russian separatists, some armed with Klashnikovs and Molotov cocktails, have manned the barricades that ring the nearby cities in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk for the past week. Just hours before the Geneva talks started, in the early morning of April 17, separatists exchanged fire with the Ukrainian army during a failed attempt to storm a military base in Mariupol. Three separatists were reportedly killed in the repelled assault, the first where Ukrainian defence forces fought back.
Despite its pro-Russia orientation, the Donetsk People’s Republic’s leadership are insisting the Geneva deal does not apply to them since the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who represented Moscow at the meeting, has no authority to speak on their behalf. Pushilin told the press conference that the People’s Republic is pushing ahead with its preparations to hold a referendum over the issue of federalisation of Ukraine, though it is unclear how this will be done or on what date the referendum will be held.
The same day, balaclava-clad Oplot -- a Russian nationalist group from Kharkiv that have bragged online about trips to Kyiv to beat up pro-EU activists – occupying the city administration building in Donetsk told bne that they had no intention of leaving the building until their demands are met. Oplot admit to being heavily armed, but say their weapons are all "licensed and legal".
Kyiv and its western allies have accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the unrest in Ukraine’s east. Amongst several worrying indications that Russia has had a hand in recent events is the presence of balaclava-clad Kalashnikov-wielding military irregulars in the region. Following the bungled anti-terror operation in the city, the unidentified soldiers spent the day lounging over the captured Ukrainian APCs in Sloviansk city centre, posing for selfies with locals in a situation eerily reminiscent of Crimea that was annexed by Russia in March. The seeming leader of the unidentified “green men”, Balu, said that they were “soldiers of the people… from many different places". Amongst those he listed was the vehemently pro-Moscow southern peninsula of Crimea, where Russia has several military bases.
In his infamous annual phonein on April 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time admitted that troops under the command of Moscow had been operating in Crimea during the events that led up to its annexation by Russia - an accusation he had previously vehemently denied.
Over the last week Kyiv has been caught on the back foot, allowing Russia to dominate the course of events. There are now, however, alongside the Geneva agreement, some further tentative indications of a Ukrainian fight back to regain control over the mostly Russian-speaking eastern regions. On the evening of April 17, a pro-unity rally attracted up to 3,000 people. Amidst a furore of yellow and blue flags, Oleh Liashko, a deputy in the Verkhovna Rada and leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party, said that there were only two options available: “Shame or war, and I choose war,” he told the cheering crowd, who sang the Ukrainian national anthem and chanted: “Glory to Ukraine, glory to its heroes”.
Following threats against the protest by Russian nationalists on social media, hundreds of police formed a cordon of riot shields around the demonstration Roman-legion style. But local artist, Elena Emchenko, who attended the rally, said that many of friends had not come because they were too afraid. “I’m very happy to see so many police here,” she added. At the last unity rally, clashes with pro-Russian supporters left three dead and many more injured.
The presence of local law enforcement was also a reassuring sign that Kyiv still has authority over, at least some, of the eastern regions' police force. In the wake of last week’s violent seizures of buildings, many local police defected to the separatists’ side and appeared on the streets wearing the orange and black St George ribbon – a symbol of allegiance to Russia.
But now even some of those sympathetic to Moscow and the federalization of Donbas, are losing patience with the unrest and buildings seizures. Georgiy, a 45-year-old, one-legged taxi driver from Donetsk wearing faux military gear has decorated this inside of his cab with the Russian and People’s Republic flag, but says whilst he agrees with the separatists' principles, he rejects their methods. “I support them because I am anti-fascist, but his is just the Maidan in reverse,” he grumbled in a reference to the to the Kyiv protests that ousted then-president Yanukovych in February. “And we can see that led nowhere good. I just want to work and lead a quiet life,” he added.
There remains, however, a long way to go. The Geneva agreement has not given any precise information as to exactly how the points will be carried out. Nor is there a deadline for its implementation. Given Russia’s recent relationship with the truth, all eyes are now on the Kremlin and its audacious leader’s next move. Ultimately it remains to be seen whether Geneva will turn out to be a Munich “peace in our time” fiasco, with Moscow engineering a pretext for voiding the agreement, or the start of a likely long and painful process to stablise this divided Eastern European country.
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