Here is what Russia and the United States should do to minimize the potentially grave consequences of the Ukrainian crisis on world stability and U.S.-Russia relations.
Russia's president Vladimir Putin and Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigu (L-R front) at a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photo: ITAR-TASS
The West is increasingly worried. Headlines exclaim that Putin is now eyeing Eastern Ukraine. Troops are massing on the border. Yet why stop there? Maybe Putin wants to recapture the old Soviet Union. No, he wants to recreate the Russian Empire! Tsar Vladimir would return. After all, just as Vladimir the Great once brought Christianity to Kievan Rus, Vladimir Putin now has the chance to bring Kiev back to Russia.
Like Vladimir the Great, Putin is very calculating. He understands people and power and is willing to use them to achieve his ultimate goals. Yet for all of the mass hysteria, few people have actually been able to define what his ultimate goals are. Does he want to re-establish the Soviet Union? Take over the world?
Recently, Barack Obama dismissed Russian power. It was as if his advisors urged him to belittle Russia, and by doing so, the problem will go away. He called Russia a “regional power” that is of no concern globally. Bringing up Cold War concepts like marginalization and containment should cure the world of the problem of Russia, right?
However, the truth is that the West needs Russia. Russia has helped to broker agreements in Syria and Iran, has helped the United States in the War on Terror, and is a key factor in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Yet, the West, despite former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's arguments to the contrary, has never tried to bring Russia in as an ally. Instead, it has belittled and marginalized Russia.
The West lost Russia after the Cold War. Had it instituted a program like the Marshall Plan and worked with Russia as a partner the way it did with Germany following World War II, a very different narrative could have emerged. Now the Kremlin authorities send a signal that Russia has reasserted itself as a power that needs to be reckoned with.
There is still a chance for the situation in Ukraine to be resolved peacefully. The first way is to admit that Crimea is now a part of Russia. No sanctions will change that now. Crimea will not return to Ukraine. That leaves what to do with the rest of Ukraine.
Many observers are convinced that Russia will invade Eastern Ukraine, and that Eastern Ukraine will become a part of Russia much like Crimea. While that is a distinct possibility, Russian forces have not invaded Eastern Ukraine yet, and seem reluctant to do so. Had the annexation of Eastern Ukraine been Russia's goal, it would have done so already. So the question remains as to whether or not the Russians will annex Eastern Ukraine, and the answer to that question is a resounding “maybe.”
The Russians are ready to move their forces in should they decide that they want to annex Eastern Ukraine, but do not seem to be in a hurry to do so. Instead, they have approached the West and made a proposal to make Ukraine a federal system, with increased autonomy for Eastern Ukraine. This is a way of ensuring that they don't have to annex Eastern Ukraine, yet can still influence policy there.
Russia would not have to rebuild infrastructure, provide higher pensions, modernize factories and infrastructure, and show a long-term commitment to the region. Already, the assimilation of Crimea is a burden to the Russian economy. Therefore, Russia would be very happy with a federal system of government and the ability to influence political decisions in Eastern Ukraine.
The new Ukrainian government in Kiev, however, has stood firm on not creating a federal system. Instead, it has shown its preference for retaining a unitary system of government. This would mean that Western Ukraine would dominate political decisions over Eastern Ukraine. If the Ukrainian government remains resolute in its objections to a new federal system, Eastern Ukrainians will increasingly protest against the government, which increases the chance for violence, which in turn would force Russia to bring in troops to protect ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine. If, however, a federal system is established with increased autonomy for Eastern Ukraine, Russia may be content to keep the status quo.
The recipe for peace and stability is a hard pill to swallow. First, the government in Ukraine must give up Crimea. This means that they must recognize that Crimea now belongs to Russia, allow their military forces to withdraw into Ukraine, and allow those soldiers from Crimea currently serving in the Ukrainian military to return home to Crimea without penalty. Currently, soldiers from Crimea or Ukrainian military officers stationed in Crimea would face desertion charges if they were to leave their posts. Second, Ukraine must have a constitutional convention where they allow increased autonomy to Eastern Ukraine by creating a federal system of government.
Ultimately, the Ukrainian government is not going to willingly accept these changes. If they do not, there could be a civil war, and Ukraine will be partitioned, with Eastern Ukraine and Crimea having joined Russia, while Ukraine would be left with only what is now Western Ukraine. The United States needs to broker a deal between the Russians and the Ukrainians.
In short, the U.S. needs to convince the Ukrainian government to accept the annexation of Crimea and create a federal system of government for what remains of Ukraine. Further, they would need to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine. In exchange for doing this, Russia would accept the current government of Ukraine as the legitimate government, and agree to abide by all agreements between the two countries.
The choice now resides with the United States. It is still the most powerful country in the world, and must choose to act in a manner befitting a superpower. It can no longer complain about Russia's actions, it can no longer try to isolate Russia. Instead, it needs to resolve this crisis and look to try to mend relations with Russia to become true allies instead of constant global adversaries.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.