Agreement Could Avert Ukrainian Civil War

World leaders agreed to end the occupation of Ukrainian government buildings by pro-Moscow militants. But militants have said Kiev's government must step down first. Ari Shapiro talks to Wade Goodwyn.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. A positive sign coming from Ukraine today. The country's defense minister says they have suspended military action against pro-Russian separatists, at least until after Easter. The announcement follows a meeting of world leaders in Geneva who insisted that illegal military groups must disarm. The hope is to steer Ukraine away from civil war, a very challenging prospect. Earlier this morning, NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to us from the Kiev airport. I ask him about the recent agreement and the reaction to it.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This deal reached by world leaders would have the pro-Russian separatists disarm and leave the government buildings that they have occupied for the last couple of weeks. In exchange, the government in Kiev would give the regions more autonomy, offer equal status to the Russian language, which are two of the things the rebels have been asking for from the beginning. But at this point, the occupiers say they will only lay down their weapons and leave if the interim government in Kiev also steps down.

They view this government as illegitimate. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his fellow interim government leaders replaced Victoria Yanukovych, originally from eastern Ukraine, who was ousted over the winter. Yesterday, I was at the rebels' occupied building in Donetsk and saw a sign that said in English, Yanukovych is our only president - clearly intended for an international audience, since it was written in English.

The other big demand the rebels have made is an independence referendum on May 11, which would be two weeks before the May 25 presidential election. Both of those - the government stepping down and the independence referendum - seem like nonstarters, which suggests the agreement the world leaders reached in Geneva may be a nonstarter as well.

GOODWYN: So do you feel that in practice, in reality, there's no meaningful deal?

SHAPIRO: The deal exists. The rebels say that they sign onto it in theory. But there's no obvious way now to see how that deal's going to be implemented. The West wants President Vladimir Putin of Russia to push the rebels to step down and put down their weapons. Putin says he doesn't control the rebels, and the rebels say Putin doesn't control him. Even so, the West is threatening to pass harsher sanctions against Russia if this does not de-escalate and the separatists do not demilitarize.

GOODWYN: And does Putin have any sway with the rebels?

SHAPIRO: You know, I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. There are obvious signs of a Russian presence and Russian influence among the rebels. At the same time, there is an authentic local separatist movement that has existed since long before this local flare-up - this latest flare-up, that is. I mean, to crib a line from Billy Joel, Russia may be fanning the flames, but they didn't start the fire.

GOODWYN: So how's the government in Kiev responding?

SHAPIRO: Well, acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has offered amnesty to separatists who lay down their weapons peacefully and leave. By my count, this is the third time he has offered amnesty. Nobody accepted the last two times, and it doesn't seem that anybody is eager to accept this time either. Yatsenyuk said yesterday that he does not have, what he called, unreasonable hopes for this conflict ending right away.

GOODWYN: If the militants were to lay down their arms, how exactly would that work?

SHAPIRO: Well, in theory, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, known as the OSCE, would oversee the process. But diplomats here in Ukraine say the OSCE doesn't have enough people on the ground to do that right now. So when you take all this together, the sort of hopeful ray of sunlight that was shining out of Geneva a few days ago now looks to be pretty dim.

GOODWYN: Ari Shapiro in Kiev. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Wade.

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