MOSCOW — Separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine on Friday defied calls by world powers for them to surrender their arms and leave the government buildings they have seized in support of demands of independence from Kiev.
Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine agreed Thursday in Geneva on a series of steps to “de-escalate” the Ukraine crisis, in which armed groups of Russian-speaking men have occupied key government installations in a dozen cities.
Some are demanding secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia, while others have been pushing for transforming Ukraine into a federation in which their regions would have broad autonomy to decide economic, social and foreign affairs.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk issued a joint statement in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, pledging “a comprehensive constitutional reform that will secure powers of the regions.” They also appealed for national unity and compliance with the Geneva agreement aimed at restoring peace in the deeply divided country.
In Donetsk, where the militants thought to be directed from Moscow have proclaimed an independent “Donetsk Republic,” a separatist leader told journalists on Friday that the Geneva agreement called for the release of all illegally occupied buildings, which he insisted includes the Kiev offices in which Ukraine’s interim government works.
Ukraine’s interim government “refuses to withdraw troops from the territory of the Donetsk region, and we can’t talk in these conditions about concessions,” Denis Pushilin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as telling journalists in Donetsk. “They must free the seized administrative buildings (in Kiev) and disarm the illegal armed formations: the National Guard and the Right Sector (militia) and free political prisoners.”
The eight-paragraph statement released by the powers meeting in Geneva provided for restoration of occupied buildings to their “rightful owners,” a phrase that the pro-Russia gunmen have interpreted to their liking.
Pushilin also accused Kiev of violating the Geneva plan’s requirement that illegal armed groups surrender their weapons as the Ukrainian army has yet to retreat from the territory occupied by the pro-Russia gunmen.
Another Pro-Russia separatist leader, Anatoly Khmelevoy of the local Communist Party in Slovyansk, said the gunmen occupying government facilities there will hold their positions until Kiev submits to negotiations on the date for a referendum on secession.
“They need to reach out to us,” Khmelevoy told Russia Today. “We still see no steps in this direction.”
A spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Security Service said government forces would put their operation aimed at recovering the militant-occupied facilities on hold through the Easter holiday weekend and reassess the mission depending on whether the Geneva plan was being honored.
“How long it will last depends on whether terrorists will leave our territory,” spokeswoman Maria Ostapenko told the online newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda. “In connection with Easter celebrations and the Geneva agreements, it is not in an active phase now.”
In Moscow, state-run media portrayed the Geneva agreement as Russia’s triumph over the Kiev government in forcing the national dialogue on constitutional changes to transform Ukraine into a federation. The Kremlin has been pushing for federalization, an administrative format that would effectively allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to influence Ukraine’s national government through its allied proxy regions in the heavily Russian-speaking east of the country.
President Obama on Thursday expressed skepticism about Russia’s willingness to comply with the Geneva agreement and said Washington and its European allies should be prepared to impose further sanctions on Moscow if it continues to orchestrate chaos in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Itar-Tass news agency that Moscow was “highly disappointed” with the assessments of the Geneva agreement coming out of Washington.
“The American side is again trying to whitewash the course of action of the incumbent Kiev authorities who are set to suppress by force the protest activity of the population of southeastern regions where people are expressing legal indignation over encroachments on their rights,” the Foreign Ministry statement said.
Russian officials have cast the separatist occupations in the east and south of Ukraine as peaceful local protests against alleged repression of ethnic Russians by what they call the “coup-installed” leaders in Kiev. An interim leadership was cobbled together by opposition politicians in Kiev in late February after a rebellion toppled Kremlin-allied former President Viktor Yanukovich, who then sought refuge in Russia.
Elsewhere in occupied eastern Ukraine, clashes continued between government forces and the separatists. Near Kramatorsk, Ukrainian airborne troops managed to get back two of the six armored personnel carriers surrendered to the rebels earlier in the week, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported on its website.
Also in the Kramatorsk area, Ukrainian engineers cut off power to a local television tower captured earlier in the day by armed separatists who switched the broadcasting to Russian TV channels, the UNIAN news agency reported. After the power was cut off, the separatists left the site, the report said.
Interfax reported that one separatist was killed in a clash near the village of Sergeyevka in the Slovyansk district, where Ukrainian troops destroyed a checkpoint of the gunmen the agency described as “federalization proponents.”
Analysts have expressed doubt that the Geneva agreement will resolve the confrontations roiling Ukraine as the interim authorities try to prepare for a May 25 presidential election.
“The document doesn’t contain the demand to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine,” Russian economist and former Kremlin adviser Andrei Illarionov wrote in his blog on Friday. “The document says nothing about Russian aggression. ... The document doesn’t contain a word about Crimea.”
Russia annexed the strategic Crimean peninsula last month after a similar campaign by pro-Russia militants who seized key government facilities in demand of a referendum on secession from Ukraine.