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23rd Feb 2020

Pro-Russia separatists reject EU and US-brokered pact

  • Lavrov (l) with Kerry, Ashton and Ukraine's acting foreign minister in Geneva on Thursday (Photo: state.gov)

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have declined to honour a peace deal brokered in Geneva by the EU and US with Russia.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told press on Friday (18 April) his forces will not surrender arms, vacate government buildings, or put off a referendum on independence on 11 May.

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“[Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov] did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation … We will persevere until the end,” he said, according to Reuters, in a reference to the Geneva accord.

“As far as vacating of buildings and areas is concerned - everyone must leave them including [Ukraine’s interim PM] Yatsenyuk and [interim President] Turchynov - as they also took them illegally … We are ready to do it after them."

In Kiev, the militant Ukrainian nationalist group, Pravy Sektor, also said the Geneva deal does not apply to it. “We don't have any illegal weapons and so the call to disarm will not apply to us. We, the vanguard of the Ukrainian revolution, should not be compared to obvious bandits," its spokesman, Artem Skoropadsky, noted.

Meanwhile, the caretaker government added that its “anti-terror” operation against the pro-Russian separatists will continue, raising the risk of new escalation.

The Geneva joint statement says: “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.”

It says nothing on two other Western demands: for Russia to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border and to stop its gas war on Ukraine.

But US secretary of state John Kerry noted on Thursday that Russia has withdrawn "one battalion", while EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton said the European Commission, Russia, and Ukraine will hold “trilateral consultations on the security of gas supply and transit.”

Kerry was less direct than in earlier statements on blaming Russia for the recent unrest.

He also indicated the US will consider relaxing its existing sanctions on Russia “if this [Geneva] agreement pans out," while an EU diplomatic source told EUobserver the Union will hold off on adding extra names to its Russia blacklist.

But Kerry added that Russia will be held to account if the separatists do not stand down. “The responsibility will lie with those who have organised their presence, equipped them with the weapons, put the uniforms on them, supported them, and been engaged in the process of guiding them over the course of this operation … Russia has huge impact on all of those forces,” he said.

Obama and Putin at odds

The US and Russian leaders also spoke out on Ukraine amid the Geneva meeting.

Barack Obama said in Washington that his main concern is successful Ukrainian elections on 25 May and that he has little faith in Russia’s promises.

“The question now becomes will, in fact, they [Russia] use the influence that they’ve exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election,” he said.

“I don’t think given past performance that we can count on that.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin told press in Moscow the May elections are a priori illegitimate and he reserves the right to invade Ukraine.

“How can this election be legitimate when candidates from the east are being assaulted, spattered with ink and kept from meeting with voters?" he noted. "According to the [Ukrainian] constitution, a new President cannot be elected if there is a living incumbent and legitimate President,” he added, referring to Ukraine’s ousted leader, Viktor Yanukovych, who is living in Russia.

“Let me remind you that the Federation Council of Russia gave the President the right to use the armed forces in Ukraine. I very much hope that I will not have to exercise this right," Putin said.

His long TV press conference made light of EU economic sanctions. “Can they stop buying Russian gas altogether? I don’t think that this is possible,” he said, noting that Finland, for instance, relies on Russia for 90 percent of its gas.

He also used it to justify his annexation of Crimea back in March.

“First and foremost we wanted to support the residents of Crimea, but we also followed certain logic: If we don’t do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into Nato sometime in the future. We’ll be told: ‘This doesn’t concern you,’ and Nato ships will dock in Sevastopol, the city of Russia’s naval glory,” he said.

Snowden pops up

The press conference saw a question phoned in by Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence contractor who leaked US secrets before going into hiding in Russia.

He asked Putin whether his intelligence services snoop on Russian citizens the way the US’ National Security Agency does on Americans and Europeans.

“We will never act in this manner,” Putin said.

Snowden later wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, the British daily which published many of his leaks, to defend his part in Putin’s TV show.

“I expected that some would object to my participation in an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged. But to me, the rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media outweighed that risk,” he said.

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