American Secretary of State John Kerry turned his plane around to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sunday.
Both had clear and inflexible demands. The U.S. wished Russia to withdraw a portion of the troops it has massed on Ukraine’s borders, and cease any pressure or interference in Ukraine’s affairs. Russia wants the Ukraine to remain militarily neutral (read: no NATO troops or affiliation); wants Russian to be a coequal legally recognized language in the Ukraine with Ukrainian; and wants a federal structure to allow greater autonomy for Russian-speaking regions. Russia would, of course, also like to see the sanctions that the EU and America placed on Russian officials and business elites removed; but since the US still sees the annexation of Crimea as an illegal act, those sanctions are likely to remain in place unless Russia does more than merely drawdown its troops.
Still, the most important goal now is to avoid escalation. And that depends on what really lies behind Russia’s demands. I would say the first demand — that Ukraine remain militarily neutral — is what everything is about. Russia was outraged to have NATO on its borders in the Baltics and eastern Europe; it will not stand for being encircled on its western borders by having Ukraine also align with NATO. So that is the absolute demand. The other two demands are things that would be nice but can be negotiated. The Ukraine can agree to allow the free use of Russian language for any purposes, and agree to have all official documents appear in both languages (much like French and English in Canada). That will do no harm, and simply reverts to the status quo before the revolution this year.
The Ukraine can and should adopt some kind of federal structure, as its regions are very different in resources and outlook. But the actual powers reserved to the sub-national units can be wide or limited as the Ukrainian people and government choose.
That means that the US should be able to say: We encourage Ukraine to remain militarily neutral; how they manage their internal affairs with regard to language and federalism is up to them. However, we hope they will see the advantages of adopting dual official languages and some form of federal structure. In any event, we demand that Russia draw down its troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders.
Russia — if satisfied that Ukraine will not be the next NATO outpost — can then draw down its troops a bit to signal it is not intent on war, and then await legislation on language and federalism, probably after the May national elections, followed by drawing down the rest of its troop buildup.
Unless, that is, what Russia really wants is to annex more of the Ukraine. If that is the case, then the latter two demands (language and federalism) are the key, and a pretext for claiming that eastern regions of Ukraine are being denied their rights and therefore need to break away from rule by Kiev.
I would argue that the first scenario is more likely, that military neutrality is the main goal and the Russia wants to de-escalate and avoid an even more costly, larger intervention or annexation in Ukraine. If Putin really wanted to take more of Ukraine, damn the costs, he would not have sent Lavrov to negotiate on de-escalation; he would simply have moved more troops into eastern Ukraine to “protect” Russian-speakers and then had Lavrov explain the necessity of doing so. Yet Putin must realize that moving into eastern Ukraine with more troops could well lead to requests by the government in Kiev for help from NATO to fortify the western, Ukrainian-speaking regions. That would leave Putin in control of the eastern regions but facing a NATO engaged and supported independent Ukraine on his borders nonetheless; exactly what he sent Lavrov to prevent!
So I believe de-escalation is possible, and that Putin will want to digest Crimea but no more (even that will be difficult, as Crimea’s Tartars are demanding their own referendum on self-determination!).
Yet as long as there remains a massive Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders caution will be necessary. Military neutrality is a reasonable price to pay for territorial integrity and political freedom; let us hope that all parties will make and respect that bargain.