When the so-called “big four” met in Geneva to discuss the crisis in Ukraine yesterday morning, they did so against a far from promising backdrop. Even as the US Secretary of State, the Russian Foreign Minister, Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister and the EU foreign policy chief were getting down to business, the row over whether armed separatists in eastern cities such as Donetsk were – or were not – special forces from over the border showed no sign of abating. Meanwhile, in a four-hour public phone-in, Vladimir Putin acknowledged that his troops had been in Crimea ahead of its pre-annexation referendum, and said that he “very much hoped” not to have to exercise his country’s “right to use military force” in eastern Ukraine, too.
How different the mood was when the protagonists in Geneva took to their respective post-conference podia in the afternoon. Contrary to expectations, the list of agreements came thick and fast. First, all sides must refrain from the use of violence, all armed groups must give up their weapons, and all occupied government buildings must be vacated forthwith (with protesters guaranteed amnesty for all but capital crimes).
Second, to help restore order and stamp out a rise in divisiveness, racism and anti-Semitism that US Secretary of State John Kerry described as “grotesque”, the monitors from OSCE – the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – who are already in the country will expand their operations to assist Ukrainian authorities to regain control. To underline the new spirit of unity, Europe, the US and Russia will all also provide extra monitors.
Finally, and of no less consequence, the interim government in Kiev has committed to a “comprehensive and inclusive” process for constitutional change, canvassing opinion across all regions and ensuring the participation of all social groups and political parties.
As Mr Kerry put it, yesterday’s efforts were, indeed, “a good day’s work”. Even as Ukraine was sliding dangerously towards civil war, the stand-off between Russia and the West was alarmingly reminiscent of the Cold War. Now more common ground has been established than even the most optimistic had predicted, raising a real possibility of the crisis being brought to a peaceable solution.
There is many a slip ’twixt cup and lip, however. Despite restraint from Kiev, scuffles between the authorities and pro-Russian protesters have been on the rise in recent days. With tensions running so high and so many armed groups, the risk of disturbance remains.
Much hinges on Russia, of course. Mr Lavrov called convincingly for a cessation of violence. But it remains to be seen whether Moscow will make good on the promise by withdrawing its clandestine support for the militants. Equally, Kiev will have to act equally quickly if its pledges of inclusivity and reform are to prove sufficiently convincing to opponents both within the country and outside it.
The situation in Ukraine is no simple matter. All sides have legitimate concerns. The Geneva talks have made a hugely welcome start. But the test will come in the days ahead. Unless there is evidence of immediate progress on the ground in the days ahead, yesterday’s agreements will be powerless to stop the chaos.