Secretary of State John Kerry made a last-minute diversion on his flight home from the Mid-East Saturday night for an emergency meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for crisis talks on Ukraine Sunday in Paris. Judging from the after-meeting conference, he should have spared the trip.
Russia remained set on their position that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and brushed aside US demands that they pull back the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along Ukraine's eastern border, saying the troops are merely participating in a routine military exercise and adding that Russia has “no plans” to invade Ukraine. Kerry, meanwhile, turned down Russian demands that Ukraine adopt a “federal” form of government – where each of Ukraine's regions would be a de facto state, capable of making their own laws, collecting taxes and conducting foreign relations, while also maintaining broad autonomy for their ethnic minorities. Kerry rejected the demand on the crazy notion that choosing Ukraine's form of government is a decision that the Ukrainians themselves should make.
The demand for a federalized form of government is emerging as the key to resolving the conflict from the Russian side. Lavrov contended that a federal state was the only way that the rights and interests of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine could truly be protected. Lavrov is continuing the idea pushed by the Putin government since the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, that being a Russian living in Ukraine in 2014 is about the same as being a Jew living in Poland in 1940, while offering scant evidence to support the claim that the provisional government in Kiev is actually threatening the safety of Ukraine's Russian population. This notion of an impending threat was the justification Russia used for its intervention in Crimea.
The real reason behind Russia's push for the federalization of Ukraine though is to ensure that the country would be basically ungovernable from Kiev and to diminish Ukraine's prospects of having a prosperous future. As explained in this earlier post, Putin's biggest fear over Ukraine is that the government that will take power after the upcoming elections in May will finally get their act together and put the country on the path to developing as a Western European-style market economy with an open and representative government. To have a country so culturally tied to Russia successfully follow the post-Soviet path of development that has been seen in Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, would undercut the foundations of Putinism. Russia, therefore, has a vested interest in making sure that Ukraine fails, the push for federalism is simply the latest attempt from Moscow to make this happen.