Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem before a meeting with diplomats at the Foreign Ministry headquarters on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem before a meeting with diplomats at the Foreign Ministry headquarters on Tuesday. // Maxim Zmeyev/AP

Putin Is Ignoring Kerry’s Warning on Ukraine

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 rebelsexpired 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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