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Federalization is Russian Design to Weaken, Not Save Ukraine

Russia’s “solution” for the crisis in Ukraine would stop the country from deepening its ties with the West.

Share of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population per region, according to 2001 census

Russia’s proposal to federalize Ukraine can hardly be seen as a sincere attempt to solve the crisis in that country. If implemented, such a scheme would almost certainly expand Russian influence into its former satellite state and probably prevent it from deepening relations with the West.

President Vladimir Putin vowed in a television interview on Thursday to “do everything” to help the people of southeast Ukraine “protect their rights and decide on their fate. This is what we are going to fight for.” He reminded viewers that the Russian Senate had given him permission to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect the lives of Russians and Russian speakers there. “But,” he added, “I sincerely hope I will not have to use this right.”

He did in the Crimea last month which had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Russian troops occupied the peninsula and later annexed it, after Crimeans voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and return to Russia.

Despite the presence of Russian troops on eastern Ukraine’s border and the suspected involvement of Russian special forces in separatist uprisings there, Putin said he preferred a political solution to the conflict that claimed three lives on Wednesday when soldiers in Mariupol fended off an attack by militants.

Putin’s solution would entail the federalization of Ukraine, giving the eastern regions that share Russia’s culture, language and Orthodox faith greater say in how they are run.

Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, told RT last month 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.

Given the cultural split in Ukraine between the east and south, which were once part of the Russian Empire, and the west, which was part of Poland and later Austria, decentralization might seem to make sense. But the authorities in Kiev reject it nonetheless, as they recognize it would primarily serve to undermine their position and secure Russia’s interests in Ukraine.

The country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, was right when he said last week that Russia’s goal is “to destabilize the state and overthrow Ukrainian power, disrupt the elections” — due to take place next month — “and tear our country into pieces.”

If Ukraine’s regions are able to not only run their own economic and fiscal policies but conduct foreign relations of their own, what, after all, would be the point of having a central government in Kiev anymore?

Russia might hope that regions in the east, which are home to sizable ethnic Russian minorities, would ally with it against a rump Ukraine that pursues closer ties with the West but even many residents there favor integration with the rest of Europe. An IFAK Ukraine survey conducted for DW-Trend late last year found support for joining the European Union to be lower in the southeast of Ukraine than in the western regions but still at 50 percent.

Moreover, the regions are divided internally as well as between them. Even in Donetsk, Luhanks 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.

Two polls published last month put support for federalization nationwide at 14 to 15 percent — and those surveys included the Crimeans who are now Russian citizens. In the southeast, only a quarter of residents said they were in favor.

Federalization, then, would not make Ukraine more stable. It could only destabilize it further which serves Russia well. It sees the country, which has a population almost a third of Russia’s, significant mineral resources and access to Black Sea ports, as not only a bridgehead into Europe, and therefore critical to its sense of European identify; it has also traditionally been vulnerable to invasion from the west when it didn’t dominate what are now Belarus and Ukraine. Seen from Moscow, losing Ukraine would expose Russia to further encroachment by the European Union and NATO upon what it considers to be its rightful sphere of influence.

However, the Ukrainians, by and large, have no desire to live under a Russian yoke nor should they. If, as Russia insists, the people of the Crimea had a right to self-determination and could secede from Ukraine, then surely the people in the rest of the country are entitled to a state of their own and a right to ally with whomever they wish?