Barack Obama’s administration and its European allies say they want a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s top diplomat has begun laying out Moscow’s view of what that should look like.
With Russia massing tens of thousands of troops along the Ukraine-Russia border, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine must become a federation that extends broad rights to Russian speakers and other minorities. Kiev would control the country’s military, set its foreign policy, and oversee its courts, but the Russian-speaking provinces in south and eastern Ukraine would exercise control over most other affairs.
In a lengthy interview published on Russia Today, Lavrov said Moscow would demand that those regions control their own "economy, finances, culture, language, social activities, or the right for friendly relations and travel to neighboring states." Ukrainian officials fear the Russian plan would have those regions operating as mini-nations of their own.
Crimea, Lavrov added, would stay in Russian hands. Moscow conquered and annexed the region in March, driving Russia’s relationship with the West to its lowest point in decades. The Obama administration and its European allies have demanded that Russia give the region back to Ukraine, but Lavrov has sarcastically rebuffed those demands.
"We know from experience that the unitary state does not work in Ukraine," Lavrov told the Russian English-language news network. "This merry-go-round cannot last for long."
Lavrov said that he had outlined the proposal on the sidelines of an international security meeting in The Hague Tuesday when he held his first face-to-face meeting with a high-ranking Ukrainian official, acting Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia.
In the interview, Lavrov demanded that Ukraine’s fragile, pro-Western government restore order, rein in what he described as extremist groups, confiscate illegal weapons, and bring an end to the kind of street protests — nicknamed Euromaidan — that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. "There must be no more ‘Maidans’ or ‘mini-Maidans,’" Lavrov said.
Speaking to reporters at NATO headquarters Tuesday, Deshchytsia flatly rejected Russia’s proposal. "The federalization of Ukraine is part of a Russian plan to divide Ukraine," he said, though he indicated that Kiev is willing to discuss devolving some power to local leaders throughout the country. Deshchytsia said his government, meanwhile, is building a legal case to challenge Russia’s annexation before the International Court of Justice.
Deshchytsia also voiced deep concern over the buildup of an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Russian troops along the border with eastern Ukraine. He said his government has presented NATO with a list of "military technical equipment" needed for the Ukrainian defense forces, the national guards, and possibly the border police. A special NATO team will travel to Ukraine next week to assess Ukraine’s needs, he said.
Deshchytsia declined to characterize the precise items his government is requesting, but he said Ukraine, a major arms exporter, has no need for more arms. "No, no, no more weapons," he said. "We have enough weapons in Ukraine."
The Obama administration, for its part, said Kiev would need to decide on its own how far it is willing to go to meet Russia’s demands.
Following talks with Lavrov in Paris Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the two leaders had discussed the Russian proposals, but he stressed that "it’s not up to us to make any decision or any agreement regarding federalization.… It’s up to Ukrainians, and Ukrainians will decide their future for themselves, by themselves."
Kerry said it is important to take Russia’s concerns into account because of its "long ties and serious interests" in Ukraine. "But in the end, Ukrainians are going to have to make that decision," he said.
The situation on the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, remained far unsettled and uncertain. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to make a peace offering of sorts, telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would order the withdrawal of an unspecified number of troops deployed along Ukraine’s eastern border to make clear that he had no intention of invading his neighbor.
By Tuesday morning, though, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he couldn’t say whether any troop movements had occurred. "Unfortunately, I can’t confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops. This is not what we have seen," he told reporters at NATO headquarters.
Kerry, for his part, told reporters Tuesday that "we were happy that yesterday Russia made an announcement … that they were going to move a battalion back. And that’s obviously small compared to the numbers that are deployed, but it is a welcome gesture in the right direction. The question now is: Is there a way to build on that in order to be able to find a way to move the masses of troops back and truly de-escalate?"
Kerry and other NATO ministers, meanwhile, issued a statement condemning "Russia’s illegal military intervention in Ukraine" and calling on Moscow to "reverse the illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea." They also pressed Moscow to reduce its troop presence in Crimea and along Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine. They vowed to "intensify cooperation" with Ukraine by reinforcing NATO’s liaison office in Kiev.
In an earlier statement, the so-called Weimar Triangle of Germany, France, and Poland — which have led European diplomatic efforts on Ukraine — said they would "support taking new strong action, including in the economic field" if Russia moved into eastern Ukraine.
But Lavrov shrugged off Western threats of sanctions as a "dead-end track" that would fail to bring Moscow to its knees. "I’m not saying that these sanctions are ridiculous or that we don’t care about them. They are nasty," he said in his interview. "Well, we don’t enjoy those sanctions but we don’t feel any pain either. We’ve seen much harder times."
Diplomats and outside observers said while it remains unclear whether there is a diplomatic path out of the crisis, it is sensible for Kerry to keep channels open with his Russian counterpart.
"I think bottom line in my view, we don’t know whether the Russians are looking for a pause as cover to prepare for their next military move or whether they are prepared to settle for some sort of negotiated settlement leading to federated Ukraine with Crimea recognized as a part of Russia," said Eugene Rumer, a Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Anybody who tells you they know, I wouldn’t believe them."