As part of the Geneva agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia, pro-Russian armed groups in Eastern Ukraine need to disband and return all occupied buildings to the state. That’s easier said than done.
A pro-Russian protester in Eastern Ukraine's Donetsk. Photo: D. Garrison Golubock
DONETSK – Representatives of the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic movement, which seized the City Administration building on April 6 and has since taken other buildings, said they would hold their ground regardless of the terms proposed on April 17 in Geneva.
A deal formulated on April 17 by representatives of Russia, the U.S., the EU and Ukraine requires that all illegal armed groups be disbanded and all occupied buildings returned to the state. However, Donetsk republic leader Denis Pushilin rejected the demands in a press conference on the morning of April 18, stating that he did not recognize the government in Kiev and would continue with preparations to hold a referendum May 11.
Protesters in Slavyansk, Mariupol and other East Ukrainian cities back up Pushilin, though the protest movement's momentum seems to have slowed in recent days, as no new buildings have been occupied and the protesters have been repulsed in several places.
On the night of April 16, protesters failed to take an Interior Troop base in Mariupol after a clash with government forces left three dead and about 13 injured, with 63 protesters detained. A crowd of separatists attempting to seize the airport in Donetsk on April 17 peacefully dispersed after briefly occupying the arrivals area of the airport.
In Donetsk, the City Prosecutor's office, previously threatened by the protesters, appeared to be conducting business as usual on April 18, while the still-occupied City Council building was guarded only by no more than 10 masked men standing behind stacks of piled tires, while office workers came and went untouched and the Ukrainian flag continued to fly overhead.
Only at the City Administration building could any sizable number of protesters be seen, with well-organized activists handing out hard hats and hot meals and canvassing for donations. Those assembled supported Pushilin's rejection of the Geneva agreement.
“Let the [expletive] 'maidanovtsy' give up their buildings first,” said Alexander, an imposing man in camouflage with a facemask. Other protesters said they supported continued resistance despite the risk to themselves, adding that they had no faith in the Kiev government to hold up their end of the bargain even if they were to vacate the buildings.
The Ukrainian government showed similar skepticism that the Geneva agreement would actually have any effect. Yulia Tymoshenko flew to Donetsk on April 18 for a press conference in which she warned that sanctions and violence would follow if Russia did not remove its agents from the country and also published an appeal to the U.S. Congress requesting military supplies and counsel from the U.S.
Even U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to express doubts regarding the sincerity of the agreement, saying that he was not optimistic that Russia would follow through with its promises. Obama added that further sanctions directed at the Russian economy had already been prepared and would be put into effect if no changes were made in Russian state policy.
Pro-Russian protesters in Eastern Ukraine don't give up despite Geneva's deal. Photo: D. Garrison Golubock
The Ukrainian government has been making increased efforts to make their presence felt in Donetsk through non-military means after the embarrassing defection of Ukrainian soldiers in confrontations with protesters in Kramatorsk and Slavyansk and their failure to push the separatists out of any of the territory that they hold.
In Donetsk, a large pro-government rally was held on April 17, with some counting as many as a few thousand people waving Ukrainian flags and showing support for the government in Kiev. Separatists attempted to break up a smaller pro-government rally of a few hundred people in Kramatorsk, but were stopped by police.
The Security Service of Ukraine backed up Tymoshenko's speech with their own press conference in Kiev announcing tightened border security and further operations in the Kharkiv region directed at finding people smuggling weapons and ammunition. The Security Service says they have detained people attempting to enter the country with cash and weapons. The Kyiv Post reports that ammunition and explosives were found in sacks of dirty laundry in Melitopol on April 17, and several boxes of grenades were seized at Slavyanoserbsk on the border with Transnistria.
As part of their heightened border security, new restrictions were placed yesterday on Russian males between the ages of 16-60: Those traveling alone will now be required to have an invitation or proof that their relatives either live in or recently died in Ukraine. The restrictions went into force on Thursday, April 17, creating a crowd of irate travelers and reportedly sparking the separatist attempt to seize the Donetsk airport.
The Security Service announced that it would also begin taking measures to cordon off the separatist strongholds from the civilian population. As of Friday night, April 18, pedestrians and vehicles in Donetsk appeared to be moving freely to and from the City Administration building.