In Ukraine, Russia Plays a Weighted Word Game
The New York Times: International
By Andrew Higgins

KIEV, Ukraine — If one ignores the images of masked men armed to the teeth and just listens to Russian television, the drama in eastern Ukraine can sometimes seem little more than a quarrel among constitutional scholars. The gunmen, denounced by the Ukrainian government as violent separatists, are invariably referred to by Russian officials and their state-controlled news media simply as “supporters of federalization.”

The nonthreatening designation may be far removed from the raw reality of a geopolitical struggle that has put all of Europe on edge, but it points to what Moscow sees, or at least says it sees, as the only viable solution to the turmoil in Ukraine. When the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine meet in Geneva on Thursday to try to find a way to end the crisis, “federalization” is likely to be the No. 1 item on Russia’s agenda.
Insisting that they had no hand in the violent seizure of government buildings across eastern Ukraine, Russian officials have adopted a tone of professorial detachment, saying they merely sympathize with what they call modest demands for adjustments to Ukraine’s Constitution. The changes, they say, would protect the rights and interests of the mostly Russian-speaking east and rein in the powers of a central government in Kiev that they describe as illegal and dominated by fascists.
For the Ukrainian authorities, however, “federalization” is nothing more than a ruse to dismember the country and ensure that it never moves out of Russia’s orbit to join Europe.
The idea of transforming the country from a republic with a central government that has, at least on paper, broad authority to a federation of largely autonomous states is so toxic, in fact, that during a closed session of the Ukrainian Parliament on Wednesday, legislators adopted a resolution barring Ukrainian diplomats from even discussing the issue of constitutional revisions at the Geneva talks, where Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov.
Parliament “stresses that issues of internal competence of Ukraine cannot be a subject of international negotiations, in particular issues regarding constitutional order and administrative and territorial structure of Ukraine,” the resolution said.
The new Ukrainian leadership is especially wary given the country’s experience under President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was driven from power in February by protesters who accused him of corruption and of serving Russia’s interests rather than his own country’s.
“Not everyone understands that the federalization issue may lead to a situation where, instead of one Yanukovych, we will have lots of little Yanukovyches,” Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, told Ukrainian television. “They want little Yanukovyches in every region. We won’t agree on that.”
But Russia has been pressing hard on the need for a federal structure in Ukraine, with Mr. Lavrov, the foreign minister, declaring it “an extremely important component of the constitutional reform because the primary objective is the unity of Ukraine through the consideration of the interests of all regions of that country.”
Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, repeated the pitch for constitutional change during a Security Council discussion on Wednesday, arguing that Kiev had fallen to extreme nationalists and fascists who needed to be reined in to save ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from persecution.
The divide between Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking east and its Ukrainian-speaking west has bedeviled the country since its independence in 1991. The two sides have different churches, different cultures and different heroes, with nationalist fighters like Stepan Bandera hailed in the west as great patriots but reviled in the east as fascist monsters.
According to a recent survey commissioned by the International Republican Institute, 90 percent of those in western Ukraine want the country to enter an economic union with Europe, while 59 percent of easterners want to join a Moscow-led customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Only 7 percent of easterners expressed strong support for the protests against Mr. Yanukovych, compared with 66 percent of westerners.
Few would deny that Ukraine needs to find a way to bridge these chasms. But with tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the eastern border, not far from Slovyansk and other towns awash with pro-Russian gunmen, few in Kiev give any credence to Russia’s assertions that it supports constitutional change simply as a good way to hold the country together.
In a recent radio interview, the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma dismissed federalization as “a suggestion to break up the country” and said it would destroy, not preserve, Ukraine’s prospects as a viable state. “We have a single piece of a fabric, a blanket — let’s cut it into pieces and then try to sew it back together,” he said sarcastically.
Fueling suspicions that Russia is promoting federalization as the first step in a campaign to pry Ukraine apart is the fact that constitutional revisions have little support among pro-Russian Ukrainians. In a recent poll by the Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis, in the eastern city of Donetsk, only 15 percent of respondents supported the proposition that Donetsk should stay in a restructured Ukraine made up of federal districts. Just over 18 percent said they wanted a unitary state, almost the same proportion that favored joining Russia.
Russia’s supporters in Donetsk deny being separatists but wave Russian flags, take offense at anyone speaking Ukrainian and are demanding a referendum to decide whether the region should stay part of Ukraine or join Russia. Constant chants of “Russia, Russia” have only strengthened the view in Kiev that Moscow’s talk of federalization is a cover for plans to annex eastern regions or at least control them through local puppets.
Dmytro Tymchuk, director of the Center of Military and Political Research, a group in Kiev, described federalization as a smoke screen for a push to put big chunks of Ukrainian territory under Russian control. While Russia might not want to invade Donetsk, he said, it does want to turn it into a Ukrainian version of Abkhazia or Ossetia: Georgian territories that, backed by Russian troops and money, declared independence and depend on Moscow for their survival.
While dismissing federalization, Ukrainian leaders have suggested that they might be ready to hold a referendum, apparently calculating that they could win a fair vote untainted by the intimidation that accompanied the referendum in Crimea last month.
Only 26 percent of those polled in the Donetsk survey wanted to join Russia or a resurrected Soviet Union, while more than 65 percent favored staying in Ukraine in one form or another.
In a visit to the Donetsk area this month to try to calm separatist tempers, Mr. Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister, offered to grant Ukraine’s diverse regions more autonomy.
His pledge did nothing to dislodge pro-Russian protesters occupying the headquarters of the regional administration building, and it was followed a few days later by assaults on other government buildings in the region.


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