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Russia, West far from Ukraine breakthrough

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Andriy Deshchytsia1

Reuters.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.

Moscow - The four-way agreement on Ukraine thrashed out in Geneva is the first sign of progress between Russia and the West in a months-long standoff, but a litany of problems remain unresolved, analysts said.

Russia is clearly keen to avoid sanctions that could hurt its already fragile economy and President Vladimir Putin is wary of provoking a military conflict with the West or a civil war in Ukraine, they added.

But with Putin still insisting that the pro-West Ukrainian government which took over after the fall of president Viktor Yanukovych is illegitimate and the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine violated, it is hard to see a rapid end to the crisis.

The turbulence in Ukraine, which began in November 2013 with pro-EU protests against Yanukovych, has spiralled into the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War and led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia from Ukraine.

“This agreement is not a breakthrough, but it is a step towards having dialogue,” said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the US-Canada Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow said: “It is important that the sides showed a desire to normalise the situation. But the question is how it is going to be implemented.”

By coincidence or design, the document was agreed in Geneva between the top diplomats of Russia, the US, Ukraine and the EU a few hours after Putin finished a marathon phone-in session with Russians where he spoke about Ukraine in tones of both conciliation and thinly-veiled menace.

Putin said he favoured dialogue to solve the crisis but warned that there needed to be guarantees about the Russian-speakers in east Ukraine and Moscow still reserved the right to use military force.

Yet the Russian strongman is hardly going to be indifferent to threats of stinging Western sanctions that would follow any Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and cause problems to the ailing Russian economy that would feed into social discontent at home.

“If the Ukrainian crisis is not resolved, it could become the detonator for a Russian crisis,” said Kremenyuk. “Russia wants to quell this crisis and this can only be done alongside the West.”

While Russia has shrugged off initial sanctions like travel bans on some top officials, measures affecting economic cooperation with the West would be a different matter.

This concern appears to have prompted Russia to take a less ferocious line at the Geneva talks.

The European Union is also notoriously divided on this issue with some key nations - notably Germany - clearly wanting to protect the presence of their champion firms in Russia.

“It is in Russia's interest to avoid deep sanctions on its sectors. Russia receives a breathing space. Many EU states do not want sanctions against Russia,” said Lipman.

Yet the steps agreed in Geneva have left an almost frightening number of problems unresolved, most notably with militant separatists in east Ukraine already refusing to leave occupied buildings as demanded by the deal.

In his phone-in session, Putin conspicuously remembered that much of what is now southeast Ukraine had been conquered under Catherine the Great to become Novorossiya (New Russia) and had only been shifted to Ukraine in the 1920s under the Bolsheviks.

He also showed little appetite for working with the eventual winner of Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, pouring scorn on both the leading candidates Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Another potential flashpoint is emerging on Ukraine's southwestern border in the breakaway Russian-speaking Moldovan region of Transdniestr, which this week asked Russia to recognise its independence.

“The sheer fact of the negotiations and the declaration is positive but I find it hard to imagine how it is going to be realised,” said Moscow-based analyst Sergei Mikheyev.

“It's the first step and it could also be the last.”

Lipman said one of the problems with the document agreed in Geneva was that there was not a single formal obligation that Moscow had to carry out, at a time when it is said to have thousands of troops clustered on the Ukrainian border.

“Russia keeps all the levers of influence, its hands are untied as its influence and involvement in Ukraine are not written down in the agreement,” she said. - Sapa-AFP


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