Fresh off triumph in Crimean vote, Moscow spells out conditions for Kiev

Russia's road map – including permanent nonaligned status and decentralized federal power – will be a tough sell for Kiev.

Vadim Ghirda / AP
Pro-Russian demonstrators celebrate in Simferopol's Lenin Square after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia on Sunday, Mar. 16, 2014.

Following the overwhelming, if legally dubious, vote by Crimea to join Russia on Sunday, Moscow has laid down its road map for peace in Ukraine. Some Russian experts see it as an "off-ramp" from the escalating crisis.

But is it?

The road map looks certain to be a tough sell for Kiev’s struggling interim government and its Western supporters. Among other demands, it calls for Kiev’s acceptance of the Crimean peninsula's right to self-determination, radical constitutional restructuring, and the adoption of a permanent non-aligned status for Ukraine. These and other steps would be implemented with the "encouragement" of an international "support group," which would be formed for this purpose and comprised of Russia, the US, and the European Union.

These steps, the statement implied, would help calm tensions elsewhere in Ukraine (particularly its Russian-speaking east), restore government legitimacy after the February regime overhaul, and create a realistic and durable constitutional model that Ukraine needs to survive as a united state.

If that's the view from the Kremlin, Kiev was having none of it. 

Ukrainian officials swiftly denounced the Russian road map as "absolutely unacceptable" and "something akin to an ultimatum," the country's foreign ministry spokesman, Yevhen Perebiynis, told the independent Interfax Ukraine agency. Instead of signing on to Russia's list of demands, Western governments should help put an end to "Russian aggression and provocation on Ukrainian territory," he said.

Moscow's prescription

The statement left open the major question of the day: the future status of Crimea. The statement called on Kiev to recognize the referendum's results but gave no indication as to whether Russia intends to annex the territory or would consider negotiating some halfway status for it within a dramatically decentralized Ukraine. 

That will probably become clear on Tuesday, when President Vladimir Putin addresses Russia's joint houses of parliament on the crisis.

The road map also called for a convening of the Ukrainian constitutional assembly to swiftly draw up a new "federal constitution," complete with a fresh charter of rights for ethnic and linguistic minorities and the recognition of Russian as the second official language. The constitution would give federal districts substantial autonomy from Kiev, creating a combination of a weak central government and strong regions. This "federalization" option could keep Ukraine's Russified eastern regions firmly within Moscow's orbit for generations to come.

"Some kind of federalization looks inevitable for Ukraine," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. Ukraine is "a deeply divided state that will keep plunging into this kind of crisis unless its different regions are given far more power to chart their own course." 

Russia's road map also called for giving Ukraine a permanent "status of politically and militarily neutrality," cemented by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. That would effectively block Ukraine from joining NATO, but might also keep it out of any Russian-led bloc in future, much as the Soviet Union and the West mutually agreed to keep their hands off Finland during the cold war.

And finally, Russia also continued to campaign for at least some degree of implementation of the Feb. 21 agreement between Ukraine's opposition and the since-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The deal would have left Mr. Yanukovych in power — an outcome since made impossible. The road map makes no reference to the former leader, emphasizing instead three other steps: confiscating illegal firearms, clearing public spaces still occupied by protesters in Kiev, and investigating the violence that left scores of people dead in December and February.  

And then what? 

The Russian road map does not make a clear counter-offer to Kiev. But if Ukraine agreed to its recommendations, Russia would be expected to pull its troops back to barracks in Crimea, end provocative military exercises along Ukraine's border, and grant recognition to the unfolding political process in Ukraine.

The US State Department hinted on Sunday that it might be open to some compromise with Russia, particularly on measures to protect minority rights in Ukraine.

News agencies quoted a senior US official as saying that Secretary of State John Kerry "made clear that this crisis can only be resolved politically and that as Ukrainians take the necessary political measures going forward, Russia must reciprocate by pulling forces back to base, and addressing the tensions and concerns about military engagement."

Mr. Kerry spoke on the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, and there are signs that a constitutional overhaul in Kiev may be emerging as a point of convergence. The two sides have "agreed to continue work to find a resolution on Ukraine through a speedy launch of constitutional reform with the support of international community," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

But Kerry also emphasized that the Crimean referendum was illegal under Ukraine's Constitution, and the US will not recognize the result — supporting a Kiev policy line that the Ukrainian government is unlikely to abandon.

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