If Russian officials are to be believed, all Ukraine has to do to stave off further Russian aggression is federalize the state. Give the eastern regions, with their Russian-speaking minorities, a greater say in how they are governed and there is no reason for Russia to interfere, they say.
This is a ruse. It should be clear that Russia isn’t selflessly interfering in Ukraine on behalf of its supposedly oppressed ethnic Russian minority. What it seeks is a divided and weakened Ukraine, one that will be unable to join either the European Union or NATO any time soon. (Regardless of whether either bloc would ever admit Ukraine.)
Yet even Westerners who are not necessarily sympathetic to Russia’s recent campaign to destabilize Ukraine see federalization as a viable solution. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, claims that “all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing: a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. This,” he writes, “not further separation, is what Moscow is proposing; and this is what the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, has publicly hinted at for the Donbas,” which covers the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
It is what Russia is proposing. But a closer look at just what Russia believes a federal Ukraine should look like reveals its proposal is anything but sincere.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told RT in March that Ukraine cannot continue to function as a unitary state. “Each region needs to have the opportunity to elect directly its local authorities, the executive branch and the governors, and to have all the rights and needs of its citizens satisfied across all spheres, including the economy, finances, culture, language, social activities or the right for friendly relations and travel to neighboring states,” he said.
One wonders exactly what, under Lavrov’s proposal, the central government in Kiev would be left to do? If Ukraine’s regions have their own legislatures and executives and can conduct their own economic, fiscal and foreign policies, what would be the point of there being a country called Ukraine anymore?
Proponents of Ukrainian federalization, including Lieven, point at federal states in the West, such as Germany and the United States. Like Ukraine, those countries are composed of culturally and ethnically distinct regions, each with powers specifically reserved for them. But those powers are largely limited to issues that do not affect the country as a whole, such as education policy, gun control and infrastructure. Bavaria and Texas do not get to make alliances with other countries on their own.
Moreover, the cultural and ethnic differences between, say, Bavaria and Lower Saxony are smaller than those between the southeast and west of Ukraine. The former was part of the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Turkey before Russia conquered it in the eighteenth century. The latter was part of Poland-Lithuania and later, partially, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This Catholic and Central European heritage is still evident today whereas the southeast is altogether more Russian. It shares Russia’s Orthodox faith, language and economic structure. Whereas the west has medium-sized cities and small towns, the east has big industrial hubs — which are dependent on exports to Russia. With the exception of the capital Kiev, all Ukrainian cities with more than one million inhabitants (Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa) are in the southeast.
But the southeast isn’t a homogenous pro-Russian bloc. In the regions Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, which have the biggest ethnic Russian populations, between 10 and 30 percent voted for Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election when she campaigned to join the European Union. An IFAK Ukraine survey conducted for DW-Trend late last year found support for joining the EU lower in the southeast than it was in the western regions of Ukraine but still at 50 percent.
Two surveys published in March also found low support for federalization. Nationwide, between 14 and 15 percent of Ukrainians said they were in favor of a federal system — and that included residents of the Crimea which has since seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia. In the southeast, support for federalization was higher, but no higher than 25 percent.
Those numbers may move up as the unrest continues. Few Ukrainians in either the east or the west want to tear their country apart and may come to see federalization as the only way to save it. Which seems to be exactly what Russia is trying to achieve by fomenting unrest and denouncing the interim government in Kiev as a “fascist” regime.
Federalization may give respite in the short term but can only destabilize Ukraine in the long run. It would strengthen regional identities and thus undermine an already fragile sense of Ukrainian nationalism. It could easily aggravate mistrust and tension, especially between Russian-speakers and nationalists, and set the stage for more “Crimeas.” Under the guise of responding to a popular will it has itself created, Russia could then eat off bits of Ukraine, whether by annexing them outright or deepening economic and diplomatic relations with the semi-independent regions.
Interestingly, even Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ally in Belarus seems to realize that. Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview last month, “If you want to preserve Ukraine as a single state — and I want to see Ukraine as an integral monolithic and unified state very much — we should not go ahead with federalization. It’s going to split the country in future and will eventually destroy the Ukrainian state.”
At least one autocrat is telling the truth.