John Kerry Told Russia It Had ‘Hours’ to Back Off in Ukraine. That Was Five Days Ago.

Vladimir Putin isn’t listening, and a shaky cease-fire between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels just expired.

National Journal
July 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Last week, John Kerry said that Rus­sia needed to pull back in Ukraine in a mat­ter of “hours, lit­er­ally.”

But more than 100 hours later, Rus­sia has done no such thing.

The sec­ret­ary of State de­livered the or­der to de-es­cal­ate with­in hours, paired with a warn­ing of fu­ture U.S. ac­tion, on Thursday in Par­is, after a meet­ing with France’s for­eign min­is­ter. “We are in full agree­ment that it is crit­ic­al for Rus­sia to show in the next hours, lit­er­ally, that they are mov­ing to help dis­arm the sep­ar­at­ists, to en­cour­age them to dis­arm, to call on them to lay down their weapons and be­gin to be­come part of a le­git­im­ate polit­ic­al pro­cess,” he said.

In east­ern Ukraine, the coun­try’s mil­it­ary has been locked in a bloody battle with pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists, be­lieved to be armed and fun­ded by the Krem­lin, for sev­er­al months. The fight­ing con­tin­ued well in­to the week­end, many hours after Kerry’s state­ment.

Un­rest raged even as a 10-day cease-fire called by Kiev between Ukrain­i­an forces and pro-Rus­si­an rebels ex­pired Monday night. When the peri­od of peace began on June 20, Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Petro Poroshen­ko said he ex­pec­ted pro-Rus­si­an mil­it­ants to re­lease Ukrain­i­an host­ages, shut down their re­cruit­ment cen­ters, and give up bor­der check­points. None of that has happened. And dur­ing the cease-fire, 27 Ukrain­i­an troops have been killed and 69 wounded, ac­cord­ing to the coun­try’s for­eign min­istry.

After meet­ing with his se­cur­ity chiefs Monday night, Poroshen­ko an­nounced that Ukraine “will at­tack, we will free our land.”

Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin had ex­pressed sup­port for the cease-fire, as well as for peace talks between the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment and the rebels in the east. He even asked the Fed­er­a­tion Coun­cil, the up­per house of Rus­sia’s par­lia­ment, on Wed­nes­day to re­voke his ex­ec­ut­ive power to use troops in Ukraine.

The form­al re­quest makes it ap­pear to oth­er world lead­ers that Putin is in­deed work­ing to de-es­cal­ate the situ­ation. But the move is mostly for show, and mir­rors the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent’s oth­er polit­ics in the re­gion this year. Putin, in short, doesn’t need to ask for his gov­ern­ment’s ap­prov­al for Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion. In March, when un­marked troops swarmed Crimea, Mo­scow denied any in­volve­ment, des­pite con­sid­er­able evid­ence held up by many world powers, in­clud­ing the U.S. A month after Rus­sia an­nexed the pen­in­sula, Putin ad­mit­ted the sol­diers were in­deed Rus­si­an.

Here too, the U.S. is sure that Mo­scow is fuel­ing the fire in east­ern Ukraine, provid­ing heavy weaponry to rebel groups there. Rus­si­an in­volve­ment, they say, is to blame in the down­ing of a Ukrain­i­an plane that killed all 49 people on board earli­er this month, one of the dead­li­est epis­odes in the crisis so far. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breed­love, the U.S. com­mand­er of NATO forces in Europe, said Monday that the weapons used by pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists to shoot down the mil­it­ary plane were likely sup­plied by Mo­scow.

So, just about every­one agrees that Putin has not done enough to de-es­cal­ate the situ­ation in east­ern Ukraine, nor is he mov­ing at a pace they’d like. But Poroshen­ko seems to have more real­ist­ic ex­pect­a­tions of Rus­sia than Kerry did last week. “I am op­tim­ist­ic and I’m think­ing that with­in a few weeks, maybe months, we can have a deal to es­tab­lish peace,” he told CNN’s Chris­ti­ane Aman­pour on Thursday.

Reach­ing a po­ten­tial peace deal may now be even more com­plic­ated, thanks to a dif­fer­ent kind of deal bound to irk Putin. On Fri­day, Poroshen­ko inked a trade agree­ment with the European Uni­on — the same deal one former Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych re­fused to sign in fa­vor of closer ties to Mo­scow, spark­ing the en­tire crisis. Poroshen­ko said that the new agree­ment serves as a sig­nal of Ukraine’s de­sire to be­come a mem­ber of the E.U. But a Ukraine that em­braces the West is the last thing that Putin wants.

Krem­lin spokes­man Dmitry Peskov ac­know­ledged the trade deal, but warned that Rus­sia would take ac­tion if its own mar­ket is “neg­at­ively af­fected” by it. For the fu­ture of Ukraine, it may be those words, not polit­ic­al pos­tur­ing by Putin about pulling back in Ukraine, that carry the most weight.

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