WASHINGTON - The United States has congratulated the Ukrainian and European parliaments for simultaneous ratification of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. Washington also called on Russia and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to honor the Minsk cease-fire agreement.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf Tuesday said the people of Ukraine “made history” in forging ahead with the agreement "in the face of great challenges." She said Ukraine’s leaders have "carried out the will of the Ukrainian people, who demonstrated their overwhelming support for further integration with Europe, including with their votes in the May 25 presidential election."
At a news briefing, Harf said the association agreement, which brought about the current crisis when it was initially rejected by then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last November, represents a loss for Russia, which opposes it. When asked if the delay in its implementation to 2016, seen as a concession to Moscow, is a disappointment, Harf said the U.S. was not disturbed.
"Well, we certainly respect the decision and know they’re going through a process. I would note that this is the association agreement that caused Russia to start all of this, that they were so worried about coming into effect so many months ago now. And, not only has it now been ratified by Ukraine, but Russia’s increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. So, it would seem a little bit of a lose-lose for them," said Harf.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the unanimous vote a “first, but very decisive step” toward bringing Ukraine into European Union membership.
European analyst Leslie Templeton Holmes of the University of Melbourne said the decision is both symbolically and economically important for Kyiv.
"It makes it absolutely clear to Russia that Ukraine under Poroshenko is turning to Europe. It’s not even going to divide its time, divide its loyalties between Russia and Europe," said Holmes.
Yanukovych's move to reject the same association agreement in favor of closer Russian ties last year sparked months of protests in Kyiv that eventually forced him from office. Russia countered by annexing the Crimean peninsula and backing allied separatists, who have battled Ukrainian forces in the east since April.
Lawmakers in Kyiv also passed legislation granting three years of self-rule to the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. That bill also backs local elections there in November. A separate bill grants amnesty to separatists who have not committed war crimes.
Harf cited this as proof Kyiv is trying to de-escalate the conflict.
"This is something President Poroshenko pledged many weeks and months ago now, that he would upon taking office. We understand the new law allows for the use of Russian as an official language, funds new development projects in Luhansk and Donetsk and gives the region the right to former their own police forces, also grants limited amnesty to those who participated in the conflict. These are steps in line with the spirit of the Minsk agreement that we believe is really key here to de-escalating the conflict and moving forward. And, these are important steps. The Ukrainians have done what they pledged to do. They’ve lived up to what they said they would do. We haven’t seen the same on the Russian side, and that’s what needs to happen," said Harf.
Holmes said that in his view, it is just a matter of time before Luhansk and Donetsk become autonomous regions, but not part of Russia.
"I personally don’t think that eastern Ukraine will completely separate. We don’t know how representative the rebels are in any concrete way. If we had [public opinion] surveys, the majority of eastern Ukrainians would vote for greater autonomy, but still within Ukraine, as long as their language rights to use Russian were retained," said Holmes.
Poroshenko travels to Canada and the United States this week, where he is to meet President Obama at the White House Thursday and address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Holmes thinks a NATO commitment might be desired by Kyiv, but won’t be forthcoming.
"What he might ask for is some sort of commitment to NATO, and I would be very surprised if Western leaders, including President Obama, would give that. I think there’s a big difference between being admitted to an economic bloc and being admitted to a military bloc," said Holmes.
NATO says Russia still has about 1,000 soldiers inside Ukraine equipped with combat vehicles and artillery. The West accuses Russia of aiding pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, a claim Moscow has repeatedly denied.
During a Pentagon news briefing Tuesday, NATO commander General Philip Breedlove said Russian troops appear to be moving away from the Ukrainian border.
"From a peak of well over 10 battalion task groups inside Ukraine, I believe we’re down to elements of probably four battalion task groups inside Ukraine. The Russians have been removing forces to the east of the Ukrainian border back into Russia. But, make no mistake. Those forces are close enough to quickly be brought back to bear, if required. They [have] not left the area that would allow them to be either a coercive force or a force used for actual combat, if required," said Breedlove.
He added that Russian forces inside Ukrainian territory serve two purposes: to keep the flow of support and supply to pro-Russian separatist fighters and to keep pressure on the strategically important port city of Mariupol, as well as ensure any peace agreement is satisfactory to Moscow.
Breedlove said that while the September 5 cease-fire remains tenuous, the overall situation is calm.