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Op-Ed

Settling Ukraine’s Crisis

Steven Pifer

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s inaugural speech on June 7 focused, not surprisingly, on healing Ukraine’s internal divisions and ending the separatist fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk. He laid out ideas—government decentralization, a guarantee of Russian language use, respect for regional characteristics and early elections—that could appeal to many in Ukraine’s east. He also reaffirmed Ukraine’s choice to draw closer to the European Union.

The president has promised an early visit to Donetsk. That would present the ideal venue to lay out his thinking in detail. He might elaborate these ideas and add a few others.

Government decentralization is needed. Political power in Ukraine has long been overly concentrated in Kyiv. Delegating some authority to regional and local governments makes sense in terms of more effective and efficient government—as well as governance that is more accountable to the citizens. It would be useful for Poroshenko to put forward concrete proposals for decentralization, which may require constitutional reform. One obvious measure to consider is to make oblast governors popularly elected as opposed to appointed by the president. It would also be sensible to transfer some budget authority to regional governments.

The president said that he would guarantee free usage of Russian language in the east. The Rada’s hasty vote on Feb. 22 to strike down the 2012 language law that gave official status to Russian in certain regions caused great concern among Russian speakers, even though it was subsequently vetoed. Poroshenko now can articulate how he would guarantee Russian’s use without fear of discrimination or penalty.

The May 25 presidential election gave Poroshenko a strong democratic mandate, something that even Moscow appears to be acknowledging, albeit slowly. Early Rada elections would revalidate the democratic legitimacy of the parliamentary body as well. If elections took place in Donetsk and Luhansk, they could select deputies representing those oblasts’ current mood, interests and concerns.

Kyiv’s foreign policy is of interest to many Ukrainians—and potentially controversial. Many in the east do not want deeper ties with NATO. How far Ukraine wishes to take its relationship with the Alliance is a decision for Kyiv and NATO. Poroshenko appears interested in cooperation but has ruled out moving toward membership.

That is a sensible policy for three reasons.

First, seeking to deepen relations with NATO would further complicate Kyiv’s already difficult relationship with Moscow.

Second, there is no appetite within the alliance to accept Ukraine as a member or offer a membership action plan. This is particularly the case since Russia illegally occupied Crimea; NATO decided 20 years ago that prospective members should have no ongoing border disputes.

Third, and most important, a push toward NATO would prove hugely divisive within Ukraine—and would make reconciliation with the eastern part of the country more difficult. Without forever foreclosing the option, Poroshenko could make clear that NATO is not in the cards in the near- or medium-term, a policy that the alliance could acknowledge.

The European Union presents a different question.

Poroshenko, the Rada and a majority of Ukrainians favor drawing closer to the European Union and signature of the Ukraine-EU association agreement, which is now scheduled for June 27. Moscow complained last fall that the European Union refused to discuss the association agreement with Russian officials. Kyiv could suggest that it is prepared for a trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia discussion on steps that the European Union and Ukraine might take to ameliorate negative effects that the association agreement might have for Ukraine-Russia trade—but not on the question of Ukraine’s right to decide for itself whether or not to sign the agreement.

At some point, Kyiv and Moscow should more toward restoring more normal relations. Poroshenko has left the door open. The question is whether Russia will cease its efforts to destabilize Ukraine, end support for the armed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, and begin to deal with Ukraine as a sovereign state.

Poroshenko said that Ukraine will not compromise on Crimea. Unfortunately, it is difficult to envisage a scenario by which Ukraine regains sovereignty over the peninsula. That does not mean that Ukraine or the West should accept Russia’s illegal occupation. However, in a broader dialogue, it might make sense for Kyiv and Moscow to set Crimea aside for the time being and return to the issue after settlement of other issues.

Nothing would contribute more to creating a better atmosphere for dialogue than a de-escalation of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko has called for an end to the fighting within a week. This is where Russia could make a big difference; it must use its influence to persuade the armed separatist groups to stand down and disarm. If that happens, the Ukrainian government should disarm irregular forces such as the Praviy Sektor.

When Poroshenko goes to Donetsk, a principal challenge will be persuading the population there that his presidency will look out for their political and economic interests, in the same way that it will watch out for the interests of western and central Ukraine. A package along the lines of the above elements—which build on points that oroshenko has already articulated—could help him win the confidence of the east.

Such a package would secure support from Europe and the United States. And it would give Poroshenko the clear high ground in dealing with Moscow.

This piece was originally publish in
Kyiv Post
.