Armed pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine said yesterday they were not bound by an international deal ordering them to disarm and would not move out of public buildings they had seized until the Kiev government stepped down.
The agreement, brokered by the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU in Geneva on Thursday, seemed to be the best hope of defusing a stand-off in Ukraine that has dragged East-West relations to their lowest level since the cold war.
Ukraine said the drive to root the separatists out would continue and warned it could take “more concrete actions” next week if they did not back down.
The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares, but with the separatists staying put in the east and Ukrainian nationalist protesters showing no sign of leaving their, unarmed, camps in the capital’s Maidan Square, it was not clear that either side would be willing to move first.
In the main eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, rebel gunmen still occupied a barricaded government building.
Denis Pushilin, a prominent member of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, said he agreed that the buildings should be vacated. But he added that the leaders in Kiev must also leave the buildings he said they were occupying illegally since their coup.
In nearby Slavyansk, insurgents also remained defiant, holed up inside a seized police station. In Kiev, pro-Western protesters who have maintained street barricades since forcing pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych to flee two months ago vowed to stay put.
“For us, for Ukraine, for the people on Maidan, it means nothing. It is a piece of paper. It is an agreement that was signed behind our backs,” engineer Valery Levchunets, 46, said on Independence Square.
Enacting the agreement on the ground will be difficult, because of the mistrust between the pro-Russia groups and the government in Kiev.
The fact any deal was reached at all in Geneva came as a surprise, and it was not clear what had happened behind the scenes to persuade the Kremlin, which had shown little sign of compromise, to join calls on the militias to disarm.
US President Barack Obama had a curt assessment of his own administration’s latest “breakthrough” in its tangled diplomacy with Russian leader Vladimir Putin: buyer beware.
“I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point,” Obama said. “The Russians signed on to that statement. And the question now becomes, will in fact they use the influence that they’ve exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order?”
Washington hopes for a window to allow the Ukrainian election to take place next month, and to permit Kiev to carry out promised decentralisation reforms that would grant more autonomy to eastern Ukraine, where people lean towards Russia.
Obama remains to be convinced he will get the answer from Russia he wants. “My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” he said. “But I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that.”