Confederation: An off-ramp for the Ukrainian crisis

March 14, 2014

The United States has no good options with regard to Crimea.

The best outcome would be for Crimea to remain an integral part of Ukraine. This will not happen. The next best outcome would be to give Crimea even more autonomy within Ukraine than it now has, federalism on steroids. This is highly unlikely.

The next best outcome would be a confederal arrangement in which Crimea remains formally a part of Ukraine, but would have autonomy over elements of both its foreign and domestic affairs. This is possible but will require adroit diplomacy — not just threats and sanctions from the United States and the West.

The worst outcome would be for Crimea to be incorporated into Russia. On the current track, this may be where we end up.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just Crimea, but Ukraine as a whole, is a core interest. Russia will not want to make its naval basing rights in the Crimea hostage to a Ukrainian state that is ever more tightly aligned with the West.

Putin will also want to satisfy the aspirations of his core constituents, who see Ukraine as closely aligned with, if not part of, Russia. Backing down at this point would undermine the tough image that Putin has so carefully cultivated.

Russia, however, will not want to detach eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. The percentage of Russian speakers, more than 50 percent in some areas, is far higher in the east. A rump Western Ukraine, however, would be more likely to firmly attach itself to the West than a united Ukraine, with its Russian-leaning east.

Economic sanctions, even extensive sanctions against Russia, will not alter Putin’s current course of action. Putin sits at the pinnacle of a state and party apparatus that can rely on energy revenues and support from many elements of Russian society. Generalized economic sanctions would have the most serious consequences for those parts of the Russian population, such as highly educated younger people living in the major cities, who do not support Putin anyway. Putin will not care if they suffer.

Given Western European dependence on Russian energy resources, the extent of any economic sanctions would be limited in any event.

Russia is not Iran. The price that Western European leaders would pay if trade relations with Russia were to be badly damaged would be higher than those that would be paid by Putin and his entourage. About one-quarter of Europe’s oil and gas supplies come from Russia.

Unlike Russia, the United States does not have core interests in Crimea. The outcome of the current crisis will not directly affect the security of the United States. There are important issues, such as Iran and Syria, where Russian cooperation would continue to be helpful for the United States. Insisting that the status of Crimea should not be changed will only further convince Putin that working with Washington buys him nothing in the long term.

There will be a vote in Crimea on Sunday on whether to split from the Ukraine and join Russia. It is likely to pass. So there will not be a return to the status quo ante.

The best the United States and Western Europe can hope for would be an outcome in which Crimea is not formally detached from Ukraine, but has a very high degree of autonomy. This autonomy would include not just choices about domestic policies but about some aspects of foreign policy as well.

Ukraine would be a confederal state where at least one of the component parts would control some elements of foreign policy, rather than a federal state where only the central government has authority over international affairs. Crimea would formally remain a part of Ukraine. The scope of the issues that Crimean officials would be able to officially decide on their own — even if their Russian counterparts were looking over their shoulders — would have to be negotiated between Simferopol and Kiev, or at least accepted by Kiev.

The United States and the European Union should not oppose such negotiations, even though they will be hard for Kiev to swallow. The alternative would be the de jure, not just de facto, incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. Which would demonstrate, yet again, the ineffectuality of American policy.

In contrast, if Crimea remains formally a part of Ukraine, the West could claim that targeted sanctions have some impact. American and European officials could continue to describe Russia as threatening, imperialistic, and overbearing. Those individuals who are now running Russia might think a little harder about a future policy that would make it impossible for them to visit their holdings in London.

Putin, for his part, could claim that he had stood up to the West, effectively protected Russian speakers in Crimea, and demonstrated to a weaker neighbor that there would be consequences for defying Russia.

A confederal Ukraine of which Crimea was still de jure a part, is the only off-ramp available for the immediate crisis.

There is no guarantee that Russia will ever become a consolidated democracy with a commitment to Western values. Such an outcome will, however, be more likely if the number of well-educated younger Russians, who would benefit from engagement with the globalized world economy, grows, and if Russia’s oil and gas revenues decline.

Generalized rather than targeted sanctions would weaken rather than strengthen Russia’s nascent middle class. Generalized sanctions would make a confederal outcome — rather than Crimea’s formal incorporation into Russia — more likely. Because Putin would have to demonstrate even more clearly that he could not be pushed around.

In the longer run, an oil-dependent Russia will never be a truly democratic Russia. The robust development of new energy resources and the associated infrastructure, such as the Keystone pipeline, in the United States and elsewhere would weaken Russian leverage against Western Europe and would make it more difficult for Putin and his colleagues to generate the revenue that they need to stay in power.

PHOTOS: A Crimean Tartar man stands in front of the Ukrainian national flag as he attends a rally denouncing an upcoming referendum on the future of the Crimean peninsular in Simferopol, March 14, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a photograph before their meeting at Winfield House, the home of the U.S. ambassador in London March 14, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/pool 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

There vastly more important issues here in the States than what Russia does in its own backyard. This is a vast waste of time, and resources….which seems to be a hobby of the “Inside the Beltway” gang.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Putin won’t stop in Ukraine, he will push as far as the West allows him to. Isn’t this not clear yet?..

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Confederation? No! Not on our say-so. Not on Russia’s say-so either.

Posted by Binary | Report as abusive