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Ukraine, E.U., Russia, U.S. Reach Deal on Calming Tensions

Today, diplomats from the European Union, Russia, the U.S., and Ukraine met in Geneva to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. After the meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the parties had agreed to the following:

  • That all "illegal armed groups" in eastern Ukraine must immediately lay down their weapons.
  • That all "illegally seized buildings" in eastern Ukraine must immediately be returned to that nation's authorities.
  • That all protesters in eastern Ukraine, who have been pushing to join the Russian Federation, will be granted amnesty by the Ukrainian government unless they are judged to be guilty of capital offenses.

Background on pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine

On April 6 pro-Russian activists stormed government buildings in eastern Ukraine. The activists flew a Russian flag over a regional government building in Donetsk, which is in the same province ousted president Viktor Yanukovych comes from, and seized security offices in Luhansk, a city which lies about 15 miles to the west of the Russian border.

The next day pro-Russian activists in Donetsk declared an independent "people's republic" and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine was being organized by Russia in order to orchestrate an excuse for the sort of military intervention seen in Crimea.

Writing in Time magazine, Simon Shuster outlined why a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would be very different to the invasion of Crimea:

For one thing, Ukraine will defend itself. In February, when pro-Russian gunmen seized the Crimean parliament and installed a separatist leader, Ukraine did not have a central government capable of stopping them. The revolutionaries in Kiev, the capital, had only toppled the old regime a week before, and they were too busy deciding who would lead the nation to mount any defense of Crimea. The picture since then has changed. Ukraine’s institutions are functioning, and though the country’s economic affairs are hardly in order, it does have a police force and a military command structure to throw into the fight.

More from Shuster:

The demographics of eastern Ukraine also would not lend themselves to a secessionist referendum. According to the most recent census held in 2001, ethnic Ukrainians make up nearly 60% of the population in Donetsk and Luhansk, and more than 70% in Kharkiv, compared to only 24% in Crimea, where the majority are ethnic Russians. So it is hardly likely that a referendum in these eastern regions would result in a decision to break from Ukraine and join Russia, at least not by the overwhelming majority that was seen in Crimea last month.

More importantly, such a referendum could only be held if Russia first manages to occupy these regions, kick out the Ukrainian security forces and install a separatist government that could push ahead with a Crimean-style plebiscite under the gun. That would mean a Russian land invasion and, most likely, the start of a full-scale war that would cost many lives on both sides, pitting the armies of two fraternal nations against each other, nations that share ties of culture, religion, language and oftentimes blood.

Though Russia would surely win such a conflict, the conquered territory of east Ukraine would be much harder to defend.

Last week pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine ignored the Ukrainian government's demand to negotiate or face force, and two days ago Ukraine launched an "anti-terror operation" against the separatists. However, as The Guardian reported, Ukrainian troops were sometimes turned back by residents:

The situation has been repeated several times now across east Ukraine following Kiev's announcement of its anti-terrorist operation at the weekend: Ukrainian troops and their hardware are blocked by angry residents, who stop them in their tracks and convince them to turn round or even withdraw.

On Wednesday, pro-Russian militia captured six Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles and, allegedly, 60 soldiers in Kramatorsk, driving them to nearby Slavyansk with a Russian flag flying.

The moment was a symbolic victory for pro-Russian forces in a conflict so far confined to isolated shootouts. Two people have been confirmed dead.

But defence experts in Kiev warned not to rule out the Ukraine government's "anti-terrorist" campaign, as the elite special forces designated to lead the operation had yet to see significant action. The troops most likely had orders not to attack civilians, they said.

The seizure of the six fighting vehicles was a huge black eye for Kiev, especially after some of the Ukrainian troops reportedly defected to the pro-Russian side.The acting defence minister, Mykhailo Koval, was on Wednesday on his way to east Ukraine.

Throughout the crisis in eastern Ukraine the Russians have been building up their military presence near the Ukrainian border. Yesterday NATO members agreed to increase its air patrols in the Baltics and deploy warships in response. This morning Putin said on live TV that he had the right to send troops into Ukraine but added that he hopes he won't have to do so:

"The people in the eastern regions have started arming themselves," Putin said in response to a question about the Ukrainian crisis. "And instead of realizing that something isn’t right in the Ukrainian state and moving toward a dialogue, [the government in Kiev] began threatening more force and even moved in tanks and planes against the peaceful population. This is yet another very serious crime of Ukraine’s current rulers." He then reminded viewers that the Russian parliament has given him approval to send troops into Ukraine. "I really hope that I’m won’t be forced to use that right," he says.

Jews ordered to register in Donetsk

Today it was reported by Ukrainian and Israeli media that Jews in Donetsk were being asked to "register" with separatists in the city. From USA Today:

Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city's Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee "or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated," reported Ynet News, Israel's largest news website.

Donetsk is the site of an "anti-terrorist" operation by the Ukraine government, which has moved military columns into the region to force out militants who are demanding a referendum be held on joining Russia. The news was carried first by the Ukraine's Donbass news agency.

John Kerry has confirmed that the leaflets were sent out and called the development "grotesque." The leaflets are signed by Denis Pushilin, chairman of Donetsk's government, who has denied any connection to their content. From Fox News:

Kerry's comments follow a report in Israel's Ynet News that a leaflet was circulating in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, demanding that Jews register -- as well as provide a list of property they own -- or else face deportation and revocation of citizenship. Pro-Russian activists have asserted partial control over some government buildings in that city.

Ynet reported that the notices, sent as the Passover holiday began, were signed by Denis Pushilin, chairman of Donetsk's temporary government -- though Ynet reports that Pushilin confirmed the flyers came from his organization, "but denied any connection to the leaflet's content."

Over at The New Republic, Julia Ioffe notes that the registration mentioned in the leaflets is not being enforced:

...the Jews of Donetsk and eastern Ukraine may have been asked by a leaflet to register, but it has not been enforced nor are any Ukrainian Jews registering themselves. If that changes, I'll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet.

Ukrainian and Russian languages in Ukraine

Russian is spoken by many people in eastern Ukraine. Map of majority languages in Ukraine based on 2001 census data below. 

Credit: Tovel, Spesh531/wikimediaCredit: Tovel, Spesh531/wikimedia

However, as Matthew Light, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto, and Maria Popova, an assistant professor in the department of political science at McGill University, point out, there are distinctions between Ukrainian and Russian speakers in Ukraine:

First, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens speak and understand both languages. Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers have lived in proximity for centuries. Many people slip back and forth easily between the two languages, and tell jokes and sing songs in both of them. Ukraine is the bilingual country Canada aspires to be.

Second, Ukraine’s civic identity does not depend primarily on language. Even among Ukrainians who prefer to speak Russian, only a minority consider themselves ethnic Russians. Many Russian-speakers proudly identify as Ukrainians. Indeed, while most Russian-speaking Ukrainians want cordial ties with Russia, most envision those ties as good neighborly relations, trade, cultural exchange, and free movement between two independent countries. Only minorities in the south (10 to 20 per cent of the population) and east (15 to 33 per cent) support either the unification of Russia and Ukraine or the annexation of their home region by Russia. Thus, support for separatism is actually lower in eastern and southern Ukraine than in Quebec. Surveys conducted in March show that only 15 per cent in the south and east support Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Even former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally and a Donetsk native, has called on Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine.

Third, Ukraine’s current national unity problems are not the product of prior separatist conflict. Contrary to Russian claims, before the current protests in eastern Ukraine, the region was not showing signs of separatism. Eastern and southern Ukrainians accepted the legitimacy of Viktor Yushchenko, a president with a strong base in western Ukraine. Secessionist parties were marginal. The electorate participated eagerly in national elections. Politicians from the south and east vied for national power and made their careers on the national stage – former Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko all hail from the east.

Reason on Ukraine

Steve Chapman on Obama and the appeasement myth

Yours truly on whether we are making too much of the east-west divide in Ukraine. 

Zenon Evans on the recent "anti-terror operation."

And much more

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