The Ukrainian crisis saw a rare bit of positive news on Thursday when foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the United States held a highly anticipated meeting in Geneva and agreed on a plan to de-escalate the situation in the embattled country. Following seven hours of discussion, the four sides adopted a joint resolution that called for the disarmament of illegal armed groups in Ukraine and the return of administration buildings they have occupied. The parties also agreed to a national dialogue to take place within Ukraine on the subject of amending the constitution in order to give greater power to the country's regions.
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This agreement is a significant one, as it comes shortly after a sharp escalation of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces in eastern Ukraine. On the surface, these clashes made it look like the two sides were sliding toward a dangerous confrontation that could spur a major Russian military intervention in the east. But in reality, this escalation could very well have been meant to shape the broader negotiating process taking place, of which the Geneva meeting was merely the latest step.
After all, it must be remembered that Russia's ultimate goal in Ukraine is not invasion or annexation, but rather neutralization. Practically speaking, Russia demands a Ukraine that is not oriented toward the West and is not a member of the European Union or especially NATO. The uprising in Ukraine and the subsequent rise of a Western-oriented government in Kiev poses a fundamental threat to Russia's interests. When the new government then began to make key deals with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund while discussing greater security cooperation with the West, this put Russia in a position where it decided it had to act.
Crimea was the first and most obvious place for Russia to react to the uprising and put pressure on the Ukrainian government. But when those operations did not sufficiently pressure Ukraine or the West into a compromise with Moscow, Russia set its sights on eastern Ukraine. While pro-Russian and anti-government protests have been occurring in the east ever since the uprising began, these demonstrations took a notable shift in the past week with the appearance of armed militia groups and the seizure of administration and security buildings in nearly a dozen eastern cities. And while Moscow officially denied the presence of any Russian troops in these seizures, there are clear signs of Russian involvement or at least influence in these groups.
The transition from supporting civilian protests to the backing of unofficial armed groups is a time-tested aspect of Russia's intervention strategy. And as the standoff between Russia and the West continued and intensified, increasing the support for such groups — whether direct or indirect — was an important component for Moscow in bringing Kiev and its Western backers to the table. Russia essentially sent a message that it can make life very difficult for the Ukrainian government, not only in Crimea but also in the country's mainland.
For its part, the government in Ukraine could not sit idly by while armed groups openly challenged its authority in the east and called for Russian military intervention. The Ukrainian military and security forces confronted these armed groups in what it called counterterrorism operations, which initially led to some success when the military retook a key airfield in the eastern city of Slovyansk from separatist forces. However, the Ukrainian military was not able to go farther because pro-Russian civilians in the area resisted and confronted them. Rather than engage these civilians and risk a popular backlash or worse, the Ukrainian military instead pulled back, even abandoning some of its tanks to the cheers of civilians.
This sequence of events was likely a major factor in shaping the agreement declared in the Geneva talks on Thursday. Russia sent a very clear signal of what it was capable of doing in eastern Ukraine, while the Ukrainian government and military saw the major constraints they are operating under in this area. Thus, it is no coincidence that disarmament of armed groups, which Russia had been accused of sponsoring, is intimately tied to granting greater autonomy to regions in the east. Whether it comes in the form of decentralization or federalization, Russia's ultimate interest remains in a weak and divided Ukrainian state that cannot meaningfully integrate with the West. The agreement is in principle the beginning of just such an outcome.
However, this is not to say that a lasting compromise has necessarily been reached. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear following the Geneva talks that this is simply the start of a process that must see progress on the ground before a true settlement on Ukraine can be reached. And as has been seen in Ukraine in the past, the complete disarmament and neutralization of armed militia groups can prove quite difficult in practice. Therefore, while the agreement is significant, it is also fraught with risks and subject to numerous complications moving forward.
Still, the talks in Geneva have illuminated a possible road to a compromise on Russia's standoff with the West. Just as Russia proved it will escalate pressure in Ukraine as long as the government in Kiev and its Western backers remain defiant, it has now proved it is willing to dial down the pressure if Kiev and the West are willing to compromise on what Moscow considers core issues. The question now is the degree to which both sides are willing to follow through with the agreement, with Ukraine's stability and the state of Russia's broader relationship with the West at stake.