Biden makes pointed Ukraine visit as Russia says Kiev reneging on deal
Vice President Joe Biden started a two-day visit to Kiev on Monday in a pointed show of US backing as Russia accused Ukraine's government of "grossly breaching" a deal designed to de-escalate separatist tensions.
Biden was to reinforce a message to Russia — which Washington sees as supporting Ukraine’s insurgency — that time is running out for it to persuade pro-Kremlin rebels holding a string of eastern towns to comply with the pact struck in Geneva on Thursday, a senior US official told reporters travelling with the vice president.
“This is going to be a situation where we take stock and determine in the relatively near term what our next step should be,” the official said.
US President Barack Obama has threatened more sanctions on Moscow, beyond ones already imposed by the United States and the European Union targeting the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin if the pact is not implemented soon.
But just before Biden arrived, Moscow claimed it was Ukraine that was violating the Geneva accord.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kiev was “unable or maybe unwilling to control the extremists who are calling the shots”.
He referred to a shootout Sunday near Ukraine’s flashpoint rebel-held town of Slavyansk in which at least two insurgents were killed by unidentified attackers. The attack, which Moscow blamed on pro-Kiev ultra-nationalists, broke a brief Easter truce.
Lavrov also told reporters in Moscow that sanctions would fail, saying: “Attempts to isolate Russia have absolutely no future because isolating Russia from the rest of the world is impossible.”
His country, he said, was “a great power, independent, and it knows what it wants”.
The Geneva accord, signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the EU, calls for all “illegal armed groups” in Ukraine to surrender their weapons and halt the occupation of public buildings and other sites.
It was meant to have lowered the heat on a simmering crisis that has become the worst confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War.
– Military moves, sanctions –
Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last month after sending in troops, has massed a military force estimated at 40,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern border.
The United States and NATO have responded by boosting their own forces in eastern Europe. A report in The Washington Post said Washington was poised to send ground troops to neighbouring Poland.
But Obama’s preferred weapon is sanctions. The ones imposed up to now, barring travel and freezing assets of Putin allies and friends, have had little impact on Putin’s actions so far.
Brussels is divided on going further, with some EU states worried that increased punishment could jeopardise supplies of Russian gas.
Biden, who on Monday was being briefed by US embassy staff in Kiev ahead of meetings Tuesday with Ukraine’s interim president and prime minister, was to speak about the country’s energy security.
The US official with him said a team of American experts were already at work in Ukraine advising on how the country could become less dependent on Russian energy supplies by “reversing the flow of natural gas” with EU countries.
– ‘Virtual war’ –
In Ukraine’s east, meanwhile, the situation was calm Monday. The insurgents remained firmly entrenched in public buildings they have occupied for over a week.
“There was no shooting overnight,” Yevgen Gorbik, a rebel wearing camouflage and a military cap and standing at a barricade in Slavyansk, told AFP.
Gorbik summed up the bellicose posturing and political jockeying by saying: “Currently, we have a virtual president in Ukraine, a virtual army, and a virtual war.”
Although highly trained military personnel whose camouflage uniforms are stripped of all insignia are seen helping the rebels secure the some 10 towns they hold, Putin denies they are Russian special forces.
However The New York Times on Monday published photos of military fighters on the ground who were seen in Georgia in 2008 — when Russia invaded — as well as in Crimea, and said some had been identified as Russian soldiers and intelligence operatives.
Meanwhile, Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president who is now in exile in Russia, demanded that Ukraine withdraw all its armed forces from the separatist east to avoid a “bloodbath”, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
The Ukrainian government last week launched a military operation to try to dislodge the separatists, but failing badly to do so it put it on hold until at least Tuesday, after the Easter holiday.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsya, told reporters at Kiev’s airport after Biden’s arrival that his government was taking steps to try to de-escalate the crisis.
Notably, it has promised to protect the Russian language across the country, and proceed with a decentralisation of power — two of Russia’s key concerns.
“We also hope that the Russian side will fulfill the terms of the Geneva agreement,” he said.
A spokesman in Kiev for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring implementation of the Geneva agreement, told AFP on Monday there was “no confirmation” of the separatists leaving occupied buildings.
Spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said the OSCE planned this week to triple the number of monitors in the country. Currently there are 100, more than half of whom are in the east.