08/28/2014 01:08 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

Why Russia Wants the Federalization of Ukraine


Just a few days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Minsk to discuss a political solution to the crisis in the Donbas, Russian regular forces launched a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to deny that Russian soldiers are fighting -- and dying -- in Ukraine, even though the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia estimates that some 400 have been killed or wounded in Russia's "non-war" with Ukraine.

Putin insisted in Minsk that Russia couldn't resolve the conflict, as it was supposedly an internal affair involving Kyiv and, as he put it, "Donetsk and Luhansk." (And heaven forbid that Russia should meddle in Ukraine's internal affairs.) Notwithstanding Putin's shameless mendacity, he does have a point. The crisis will be settled only if Kyiv's relations with Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are placed on a stable footing.

The long-term solution everyone's been talking about -- including Merkel and her Foreign Minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier -- is "federalization." For Russia, long a champion of federalization in the Donbas (and long a foe of federalization at home), federalization means near-independence. The Russian and pro-Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine generally mean the same thing. Unsurprisingly, Kyiv believes that, since federalization is just a code for eventual secession, it is unacceptable -- all the more so as Ukraine is defined as a unitary state in its Constitution, and getting a two-thirds majority in the Ukrainian Parliament to change the basic law or, for that matter, to agree on anything in these turbulent times is well-nigh impossible.

Merkel initially endorsed federalization in Kyiv and then, presumably after having been briefed by Ukrainian officials about why the term is unacceptable, emphasized that what she really meant was "decentralization." Here, she's in complete agreement with Ukrainian elites, intellectuals and civil society, all of whom agree that Ukraine's central state apparatus is too large, too intrusive, too corrupt and too inefficient. They also agree that central powers should be devolved to provinces, districts, cities, towns and villages.

Ukrainian thinking about decentralization is far ahead of Western recommendations. Several months ago, Ukraine's Ministry of Regional Development and its energetic minister, Volodymyr Groysman, the 36-year-old former Jewish mayor of Vinnytsia city, developed a ramified plan for decentralizing authority.

According to the plan, regions would be responsible for 1) culture, sport, and tourism, 2) specialized secondary education, 3) the specialized protection of health, 4) planning regional development, 5) transportation infrastructure of regional importance, and 6) the maintenance of objects of common ownership of the territorial communities of a region.

The plan is short on specifics, but one can easily imagine that responsibility for culture would enable regions to promote the Russian language and that responsibility for regional development and transportation would enable them to drive their own economies. Groysman also envisions the transformation of Ukraine's currently all-powerful provincial governors into the equivalent of French-style prefects. On June 18, the Cabinet of Ministers approved the Ministry's "Concept of Reforming Local Self-Administration and the Territorial Organization of Authority in Ukraine."

In sum, Ukrainian officials have been thinking seriously about decentralization ever since the Maidan Revolution culminated in Viktor Yanukovych's flight from Kyiv and provoked Putin's invasion of the Crimea. Actual decentralization has still to take place for several reasons. The most important one is the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian aggression in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces (the two regions that have been clamoring the loudest for federalization), and the ongoing destruction by Russian proxies of the Donbas -- its cities, infrastructure, and population. Under conditions of war, decentralization seems almost academic.

Also important is the absence within the Donbas of legitimate regional interlocutors for Kyiv. Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which ruled the Donbas with an iron fist, has fractured in recent months, lost much of its eastern Ukrainian base (several hundred thousand people have fled the region), and is scrambling to avoid prosecution for its crimes during the Yanukovych era. The party is likely to make a comeback if and when things settle down, but the days of its absolute Mafia-like hegemony are over. The leaders of the self-styled Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics make no bones about their hatred of all things Ukrainian and of their desire to destroy Ukraine as a state. The officials ostensibly running eastern Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages may still have some clout, but they too have been losing influence fast.

The parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26 will produce a new set of national deputies, most of whom will presumably be reflective of the interests of their voters. The ballot could lead to the formation of a new Donbas elite willing and able to negotiate decentralization with Kyiv, but only if the Russian proxies and Russian regular forces do not control the Donbas in late October or prevent the populations under their control from voting. They did try to keep people from voting in the May 25 presidential election. In all likelihood, they will be equally obstructive in October.

The final obstacle to decentralization has been the ineffectiveness and anti-reformist inclinations of the Parliament inherited from Yanukovcyh's days. With Parliament's dissolution and the declaration of new elections in October, however, there's a good chance that the majority will be in the hands of democratic parties committed to radical reform, including decentralization.

Ultimately, the fate of decentralization will depend on the outcome of the war. If Russia captures the Donbas, decentralization will be moot. If Russia continues to destroy the Donbas, eventually transforming it into a Hobbesian state of nature, decentralization will also be moot. If the Russian proxies hold on to their bit of the Donbas, which, though territorially small, is quite populous, decentralization will, again, be moot. In other words, for decentralization -- or even some form of federalization -- to become a reality in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv must reestablish control of the Donbas. Thus far, although Russia insists that federalization is imperative, it appears to be doing everything to make it moot or impossible.