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Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Editorial: Turning it down a notch in Ukraine

After seven hours of intense negotiations in Geneva on Thursday, it appears that the crisis in Ukraine may be tamed — for a while. But the elements fueling the crisis remain in place.

In a joint statement at the conclusion of the gathering of diplomats in the Swiss city, the participants said the agreed-upon steps would reduce tensions and restore security “for all citizens” of Ukraine.

“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions,” the statement said. “The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”

Those are certainly hopeful words, and if they prove effective in stabilizing the situation in Ukraine, the participants in the Geneva deliberations will deserve high praise. But we’re skeptical, given Vladimir Putin’s statements on the same day.

The Russian president, addressing a nationwide television audience, declared that the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament had authorized the use of military force — if necessary — in eastern Ukraine, where Putin has asserted a historical claim to the territory, even referring to it for the first time as “New Russia.”

In fact, Putin went so far as to say “God only knows” why that part of the country ever became Ukraine in 1920, suggesting it is reasonable that it return to Russia’s domain now. However, he denied that the present unrest in the region is being fueled by Russian troops.

Putin repeated his insistence that Russia has an obligation to protect ethnic Russians who represent a large minority of the population in the disputed territory.

“We must do everything to help these people to protect their rights and independently determine their own destiny,” he declared. His language was in sharp contrast to that emanating from the diplomatic gathering in Geneva, where pledges to refrain from violence or provocative behavior were included in the agreement.

The diplomats meeting in Geneva did not assert that Russia must pull back its 400,000 troops from the Ukraine border, nor did they commit Russia to engaging the interim Ukrainian government in direct talks aimed at defusing the crisis.

What the agreement did say was that all illegally armed groups must be disarmed and that all illegally seized buildings must be returned to their legitimate owners. Furthermore, all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in all Ukrainian communities must be vacated.

And it formally endorsed providing economic support to Ukraine, which is having serious financial difficulties that appear to be beyond the capabilities of its interim political leaders to solve.

“None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done,” U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged. “We do not envision this as the full measure of de-escalation.”

Then he added this warning: “If there is not progress in these next days, then there will be additional sanctions, additional costs.”

The meeting in Geneva can be regarded as a success because it did bring Ukrainian and Russian representatives to the same table. Perhaps the possibility of Western allies imposing serious economic sanctions — in contrast to the weak sanctions that had been adopted — finally got the attention of Russia, whose economy is shaky. Still, it is doubtful peace has been achieved.

Given Putin’s apparent obsession with returning Moscow to its former prominence as the capital of the sprawling Soviet Union, the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — where many speak Russian — would be well advised to keep a wary eye on the man in the Kremlin.

And the Obama administration must be prepared to respond should Putin’s words prevail over those of his envoys.

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