Eastern Ukraine's future: Do Kiev and Moscow actually agree?

As Crimea joins Russia, Ukrainian leaders outline ways to prevent the eastern part of their country from following suit.

Andrey Basevich / AP
Pro-Russia demonstrators form a Russian flag as they stand under a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin during a rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday, the day residents of Crimea voted to join Russia. Pro-Russia demonstrators in Donetsk called for a similar referendum in their district.

It was a dramatic appeal, in Russian, for national unity – a promise delivered in a rousing speech that fellow Russian-speaking citizens would have a bright future in their changing homeland.

No, it wasn't Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking.

While the world gaped at Mr. Putin’s triumphant takeover of Crimea, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk offered his own political manifesto of sorts Tuesday in a televised address. His intended audience was the Russia-leaning eastern regions of Ukraine, where pro-Russian demonstrators have been clamoring for Moscow's intervention.

The message: that Kiev is listening to their demands and concerns.

Given Russia's momentous power grab, Mr. Yatsenyuk struck a conciliatory, even subdued tone, at least in this speech. (He later decried Moscow’s move in Crimea as “theft on an international scale" in a separate address.) And, somewhat surprisingly given the unfolding events, his measured statement would go down well in Moscow.

Earlier this week, Russia laid out its vision for eastern Ukraine and how Ukraine can move toward reestablishing its stability and territorial integrity – or what’s left of it. Ukrainian officials called the Russian road map, published on the foreign ministry’s website, an “ultimatum” and a “completely unacceptable” demand. But, as Yatsenyuk's speech showed, the two sides share common themes with regard to Ukraine’s east.

The prospect of a federalized Ukraine. Yatsenyuk promised government reforms that would transfer to Ukraine's regions "the broadest scope of authority and financial resources.” The Russian memorandum also calls for decentralization in Ukraine – it called the process “federalization” – and said it should be written into the Ukrainian Constitution. Yatsenyuk’s statement confirmed that this was being done. 

The renunciation of NATO membership. Moscow does not want Ukraine to join NATO – so much so that its road map prescribes a permanent non-aligned status for Ukraine. Yatsenyuk said that “the question of NATO membership is not on the agenda.” Kiev was also treading carefully in negotiating the economic part of the controversial association agreement with the European Union, "postponing" the signing to ensure that it does not hurt the east, he said. (Ukraine expects to sign the political part of the accord this Friday.)

Strong guarantees for Russian speakers. Russian will remain an official language in all Ukrainian regions where it’s predominant, Yatsenyuk said. His own wife speaks mostly in Russian, he added, "and she, like millions of other Russian speakers, does not require protection from the Kremlin.” This is another nod to Russia's road map, which calls for linguistic equality for Russian-speakers. Yatsenyuk had drawn flak for moving to abolish the Russian language's special status in his first days in office. This initiative has now been walked back by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, he said, "with full support from me."

Concessions to Moscow? Just a month ago, these steps might have appeared that way. Today, they may look more like realism.

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