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Federalism Will Not Solve the Ukraine Crisis

Federalism, which assumes unitary defense, unitary foreign policy and trade policy is a band-aid on a cancer that is plaguing Ukraine

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In an article in today’s Russia Insider, Alexander Mercouris has called attention to the latest editorial on the Ukrainian crisis in The New York Times, which he considers to be a diplomatic message from Washington to Moscow that it is ready to cut a deal to end the Ukrainian civil war roughly on terms that the Kremlin had laid out last spring. Specifically this means changing the Ukrainian constitution into a federal system with broad autonomy for the Donbass and assurances that Ukraine would remain neutral and not seek NATO membership.

Mercouris raises the question whether those terms would satisfy the rebels of the Lugansk and Donetsk self-declared republics given the degree of bloodshed and hatred that the intervening period of war has generated, and the fact that in their ongoing winter offensive the rebels appear to be winning the war on the ground.

<figcaption>Federalism will be a tough sell in East Ukraine</figcaption>
Federalism will be a tough sell in East Ukraine

Mercouris’ point may be well taken. However, it leaves unresolved other serious problems with taking the proposed settlement from before the war as a basis for peace now. Not least of them is the inadequacy of federalism per se to meet the needs of the Donbass, or to meet the needs of the Russian speaking population in the rest of Ukraine.

As a long-time resident and political observer in the Kingdom of Belgium, a country riven by resentments between the two major language communities which also have disparate economic and social models that approach the situation in Ukraine, I can affirm that federalism is not the end game and will solve nothing in Ukraine today.

Belgium was for decades held up in international forums as the poster child for “consocial” harmony, meaning power-sharing. Over the past half century the country has been transformed from a unitary state to a federal state with a succession of devolutions of power from the center to the regions. And yet the separatists in the North have each time clamored for more and the country now faces debate over its possible 7th constitutional reform into a “confederal” state, meaning essentially two states sharing only common borders and common sovereignty.

In the Ukrainian case federalism will not solve the economic contradictions that underlie the political fault lines. Federalism, which assumes unitary defense, unitary foreign policy and trade policy is a band-aid on a cancer. A Donbass or Novorossiya which is part of Ukraine operating under the conditions of the Association Agreement with the European Union is an economically dead Donbass.

Confederalism as defined above should satisfy the core US/EU demand that there be no changes in borders while satisfying the Russian demand that its special economic relationship with Donbass be respected even under terms of cooperation with the EU. It prevents the stand-off from becoming a “frozen conflict” that is an obstacle to reconstruction on both sides. It of course is less than total independence sought by the rebels now, but this type of compromise is how wars can be brought to an end, and may be imposed on the rebels if their hoped-for victory on the ground in weeks does not bear out.

Apart from the question of depth of decentralization represented by confederalism, any solution to the Ukrainian crisis will not be of long duration if it does not also deal with the language question, not just in Donbass but in all of Ukraine. Given the vehemence of the Ukrainian nationalists in control of Kiev, it is probably unrealistic to speak of two official state languages for Ukraine. But a country that aspires to European values must then implement the norms of Europe-wide and United Nations conventions on the rights of language minorities. This means in practice the right of minorities to run schools, to communicate with the government and to conduct their commerce in their own language wherever they constitute a significant percent of the population, not to mention where they hold a majority position.

It is good that the New York Times editorial recognized the issue of neutrality, non-NATO status for Ukraine. But by and large such talk on the American side has always been time-limited, with the expectation that at some point in the future, when the present hot conflict cools off, NATO membership might once again be floated. Yet, for the Russians, face-saving compromises on this matter are not possible; the issue of NATO expansion has been the driving force in the whole East-West conflict. Any settlement of the Ukrainian crisis is imaginable only with a constitutionally mandated neutrality in Ukraine and a formal convention between the NATO states and Russia guaranteeing this neutrality.


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