The “Option” of Ukrainian Federalization: What Western Media Gets Wrong

Ukraine is staring down a truculent and vindictive bear. For nearly a year, the Ukrainian people have born the consequences of the Kremlin’s vengeance and aggression, first suffering the annexation of its sovereign territory in the form of Crimea, and then weathering a Russian onslaught in the form of a faux pro-Russian rebellion in the two easternmost Ukrainian regions. But make no mistake.  The rebels are led, bankrolled, and supported by sizable numbers of Russian military men and modern weapon systems. This is not to mention the Russian ‘volunteers’ that are cajoled into fighting for ‘Russkiy Mir’ and ‘New Russia’, Russia’s modern imperial ideology that claims much of modern Ukraine as rightfully Russian.

Fortunately, despite perhaps an unprecedented misinformation campaign that attempts to portray Ukrainian reformers and the Ukrainian people in general as fascists bent on genocide and discrimination against Russians, the international community has rejected Russia’s claims to the Crimean peninsula and aggression in the east of the country. A majority of UN member states, exactly one hundred countries, voted to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity at the United Nations General Assembly vote in March of last year. Only eleven states voted against the resolutions.

Despite the show of international support for Ukraine in the face of very real threats to its territorial integrity and right to determine its own future, Russian misinformation campaign has had its effect on foreign media’s perception and approach to the conflict. Many journalists and public figures, even those who are otherwise sympathetic to Ukraine’s suffering, feel compelled to “balance” the conflict as ambiguous, with valid arguments on both sides.  In an ideal environment, this is how media should function. Journalism must challenge accepted narratives and hold those with power accountable. But media in Russia, with a few limited exceptions, is no Fourth Estate. It works only to support the power of President Putin and his inner circle, rather than challenge it. In this fashion, the Kremlin exploits foreign media’s dedication to balanced coverage and nuance. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the dissemination of misconceptions to the internationally community through otherwise reliable channels.

There’s perhaps no better example of this reality then the recent editorial published by The New York Times, Mr. Putin Resumes His War in Ukraine (Feb. 2, 2015). The editorial accused the Russian president of escalating the conflict in Donbas while also expressing skepticism at the benefit of supplying weapons to the Ukrainian government on top of calling for dialogue. To be clear, the editorial raises important points and opinions that need to be taken into account, even if the Ukrainian government and the majority of Ukrainians might disagree. According to the editorial, U.S. provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine might only escalate the conflict by giving Putin a casus belli to increase pressure on Kyiv by driving deeper into Ukraine. While many might disagree, particularly the government in Kyiv, this possibility needs to be taken into account and weighed against the likely benefits of giving the Ukrainian military the means to properly defend itself.

Unfortunately, the New York Times’ editorial board’s understanding of the reality of the Ukrainian situation did not extend to their proposals for de-escalating the conflict and finding a lasting peace that can ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and the rights of its people to craft their own affairs. The editorial asserted that federalizing Ukraine is an option on the table, indicating that Putin is likely not ‘interested’ in eastern Ukraine’s annexation, but instead wants to make Ukraine a federative rather than unitary state. For the West, “there is definitely potential for negotiations there,” according to the editorial board. The editorial manages to grasp Putin’s true objective in Ukraine, while revealing a certain naiveté about the nature of the conflict and the missing political realities in Ukraine itself.

Russia has never sought to annex select regions of eastern Ukraine. Inheriting an uncompetitive Ukrainian Rustbelt has never been in the cards. Instead, Putin prefers a pliable, poor, and corrupt Ukraine that he can manipulate, forestalling the reforms that Ukrainians demand. Russian media, including its English-language broadcasts, have attempted to portray Ukraine has a nation deeply divided between its pro-EU west and pro-Russia east which would benefit from autonomy. For even the most astute and thoughtful publications, the New York Times included, this misinformation campaign has held water. Surely, a divided Ukraine could benefit from a federative system that also appeases Russia? This could only be accomplished over the heads of Ukrainians themselves, whose own agency has often been lost in the clatter of diplomatic confrontation between east and west.

The truth is that Ukraine is no Belgium. The country is not as divided along ethnic, linguistic, or political lines as the Russian misinformation machine has claimed. Past polls by both Ukrainian and international polling agencies have shown that Ukrainians are unequivocally opposed to their country’s federalization, especially under the coercion of Russian bayonets. Polls conducted by the Kyiv Institute of International Sociology in April 2014, showed that even Ukraine’s southeast regions overwhelmingly opposed Russian intervention and denied that their rights were being infringed by the interim government. Outright majorities in most “Russian-speaking regions” opposed federalization. Only in the farthest eastern region of Luhansk did a majority of respondents support federalization.  Instead, most Ukrainians prefer their country’s unitary political structure in conjunction with decentralization that increases the decision-making power of local and regional governments.

The federation of Ukraine would go against the wishes and the interests of the Ukrainian people. But it is what Putin has sought all along. A federal Ukraine is nothing short of Moscow’s perpetual control over Donbas and a say in Ukrainian politics, exercising a de facto veto over reforms, better living standards, and European aspirations. Transparent government in Ukraine raises pressure for transparent government in Russia, an idea that inimical to everything Putin’s system relies on. A transparent Ukraine is a partner for Russia but a threat to Putin.

Yes, the solution to the conflict will necessarily need to be decided through negotiation, not by force of arms. War is ugly and tragic. Putin has made it clear that he will never accept the defeat of his proxies in Ukraine. At the same time, the federalization of Ukraine is no compromise. It’s complete capitulation. In the guise of “balance,” Ukrainian federalization will play precisely into Putin’s plans.

Russia cannot dictate a neighboring country’s indefinite future through force of arms. Unfortunately, the Kremlin media campaign’s falsehoods about the desires of a sovereign people continue to stick. Putin never wanted the annexation of eastern Ukraine. It’s federalization that he has sought all along.

Editorial Board of Ukraine Crisis Media Center