Skip to main content

Ukrainian riot police block pro-Russia supporters near the regional administrative building during a rally at a central square in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 16, 2014.Sergei Chuzavkov/The Associated Press

For weeks now, Western analysts and politicians have been waiting to see what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants in exchange for peace in Ukraine.

On Tuesday, the world will almost certainly get an answer when Mr. Putin makes an extremely rare address to both houses of the Russian parliament, the Duma. The speech will address Crimea's recent vote to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Mr. Putin signed a decree on Monday declaring Crimea to be a sovereign state, clearing the way for it to legally join Russia, perhaps as soon as this week. According to official figures released by the Crimean government, 96.77 per cent of those who voted in a Sunday referendum supported union with Moscow.

But statements from Moscow on Monday left little doubt that Mr. Putin's aims extend well beyond Crimea. What he apparently wants to see in Ukraine is a broken, weak neighbour, one left at Moscow's mercy.

A statement posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday called for the new government in Ukraine to "urgently" adopt a new "federal constitution."

That reads like code for reinventing Ukraine along the lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that is a collection of loosely united mini-states. It's not hard to envision what that might look like in Moscow's vision for Ukraine: an autonomous republic in the Russian-speaking east of the country along the lines of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Grouped perhaps around the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk, such a mini-state would naturally look east to Moscow and – of course – ensure that Ukraine never joins the European Union or NATO. For good measure, Russia might even push for Russian-speaking cities in the south of Ukraine (such as Odessa, Kherson and Mykolaev) to be added to this Russkaya Respublika, or to be grouped into another mini-state over which the Kremlin would have influence.

A federal Ukraine would actually please many in the south of the country, who don't quite share the desire shown in Donetsk and Lugansk (not to mention Crimea) for tighter ties with Moscow, but who also don't feel well-represented by the new government in Kiev.

The post-revolutionary authorities alienated many of the country's Russian speakers by using some of their first hours in power to overturn a Viktor Yanukovych-era law that allowed regions with large linguistic minorities to adopt second official languages (Russian) alongside Ukrainian.

Interim President Oleksander Turchynov wisely decided against signing the changes to the language law, but the damage was already done. Many Russian-speakers firmly believe the post-revolutionary government in Kiev intends to marginalize and persecute them.

"The best way to bring the situation back under control, to contain this conflict, is first to fix the status of the Russian language, the second is the federalization of Ukraine," said Yuriy Tkachev, the editor of a pro-Russian news website in Odessa. "If these things are done, the people who are [protesting for union with Russia] might say 'Right – we can try to live in Ukraine under these rules.'"

But it's unlikely to happen. The idea of a federal Ukraine is one that has been repeatedly rejected by the country's pro-Western politicians, who see it as a guarantee of Russian meddling in their country, and a likely precursor to more separatism. (Crimea, which voted on Sunday for union with Russia, had special status as an autonomous republic within Ukraine.) When I visited Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyy at his office last month, he told me Ukraine was too new and too weak a country to handle any more regionalism than it already had.

It took Kiev just hours to say no to the Russian suggestion on Monday. "The statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry looks like an ultimatum," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebynis was quoted saying. "The position as set out is absolutely unacceptable for the Ukrainian side."

Which leaves Ukraine still teetering on the brink of conflict, vulnerable to whatever Mr. Putin decides to do next.

Stability looks a very long way off. The Russian Foreign Ministry's statements on Monday matched part of (and thus lent credence to) a document that was posted online over the weekend by the website, which is owned by the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom. The document is purportedly a leaked version of a proposal that was presented to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they met in London on Friday.

Alongside a new constitution for a federalized Ukraine, the undated document – which is written in Russian and English – calls for:

  • a return to the EU-brokered peace deal of Feb. 21, which left Mr. Yanukovych (who fled the next day) as president until new elections could be held in Ukraine
  • new elections to be held after a national referendum on Ukraine’s new constitution (potentially extending the disgraced Mr. Yanukovych’s presidency into 2015)
  • Russian to be made an official language, alongside Ukrainian, in the entire country
  • the result of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea “be recognized and respected”
  • Ukraine to adopt a “neutral military and political status” in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity from Russia, the U.S. and the EU.

In other words, Russia is demanding that the West completely betray those who stood on Kiev's Independence Square for three months demanding change in their country. The protesters would have to swallow the return of the ousted Mr. Yanukovych, plus the end of their dream of joining the EU.

For good measure, Moscow would get the U.S. and EU to recognize its coming annexation of Crimea.

Clearly, the leaked document was never meant to be an offer the West could accept, or even a starting point for serious diplomacy. It was an illustration of Mr. Putin's anger over the revolution in Kiev, which he views as a Western-sponsored coup d'etat in a country he considers part of Russia's historic sphere of influence.

The note Mr. Lavrov presented to Mr. Kerry is akin to a kidnapper's ransom note, a list of what it will take to keep Mr. Putin – who obviously believes he's in total control of the situation – from hurting his victim, the country of Ukraine.

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon