How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Elements of a diplomatic resolution.

For the next few days, the administration, Congress, and the commentariat will inevitably vent their outrage at, and propose various ways of pushing back against, what they all consider Russia's blatant violation of international law in and around Crimea and Putin's duplicity and hypocrisy. But eventually, we will need to find a political way to resolve the Ukraine crisis, sooner rather than later, one would hope, if we want to stop short of an unpredictable test of arms or a set of sanctions with potentially devastating consequences for fragile economies in Europe and Russia. In particular, we will need to find face-saving steps that will minimally satisfy the interests of each party and allow them to back down from confrontation. Two insights—one about Russia, the other about Ukraine—could allow us to fashion a solution consistent with our principles and interests.

First, Russia. Putin's strategic ambition is to create a Eurasian Union, an entity that would secure Russia's preeminence throughout the former Soviet space, historically the foundation of its geopolitical heft. Without Ukraine, the strategically located former Soviet republic with the greatest economic potential after Russia itself, the Eurasian Union makes no sense. Russia could hold onto the Crimea and perhaps some other Ukrainian provinces, but if the rest of Ukraine then moved into closer economic, political, and security alignment with Europe, that would mark a colossal setback for Putin's dreams.

Putin, however, is pragmatic, well attuned to the balance of power. He does not take irrational risks. He undoubtedly knows that Russia does not have the wherewithal to assert control over all of Ukraine. While we should be humble about our ability to read his mind, the goal behind his recent actions is not likely slicing off a bit of Ukraine in a neoimperialist fit, but rather using control of the Crimea as a bargaining chip to gain a government in Kiev that satisfies his minimal goal, that is, one that does not decide in favor of Europe but keeps open the option of a future closer alignment with Russia.

Second, while the West has little choice but to support the interim Ukrainian government at this point, we should be honest enough to acknowledge that is suffers from a democratic deficit. Moreover, it consists of members of the same corrupt elite that has dominated Ukraine for at least the past decade and brought the country to the brink of ruin. Similarly, no matter what we might think of the Maidan protests, it is a stretch to argue that a group of even a hundred or more thousand speaks for a country of 45 million, particularly one as diverse as Ukraine. Finally, it is mildly ironic that we are backing the actions of a Rada that was elected in 2012 in a process the OSCE judged less free and fair than the one that elected Yanukovich in 2010. What Ukraine urgently needs now is a legitimate president and Rada as the foundation for a legitimate government. And the way to get there is through elections, the sooner the better.

These two insights lead to a way forward. The Russians have been insisting that all parties honor the February 21 agreement reached by Yanukovich and the opposition. But in response to Secretary Kerry's sharp condemnation of Russia over the weekend, the Russian Foreign Ministry noted not that the agreement should be honored in its entirety but rather that it should serve as "basis" for a resolution of the crisis. In addition, Russia officials, while insisting that Yanukovich remains the legitimately elected Ukrainian president, have also acknowledged that he cannot continue in that capacity. Putin said as much in his preference conference of March 4. Persuading the Russians to pressure Yanukovich to resign could set in motion a political process for resolving the crisis on the basis of a suitably modified version of the February agreement. The goal would be to establish a set a legitimate political structures backed by Russia, the European Union, and the United States and to give the new Ukrainian leaders the time and space to reach a consensus on a more durable and constructive political system.

The Elements of a Solution

What might persuade the Russians? We should consider a package along the following lines.

The Government. The interim government headed by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk now operating in Kiev needs to be enlarged to provide for broader representation of Ukraine's political spectrum. Its focus would be on organizing the elections noted below and dealing with urgent fiscal and economic matters.

Presidential Elections. Under the Ukrainian constitution, Yanukovich's resignation would set in motion steps toward new presidential elections in ninety days. Turchynov could remain as acting president, even thought the constitution names the prime minister as acting president during this interim.

Rada Elections. Simultaneously with Yanukovich's resignation, the Rada would dissolve itself, setting the stage for new elections within sixty under current Ukrainian law. Provisions would have to be made for the expedited registration of any political forces that wanted to contest the elections. The OSCE would act as the monitor, ensuring that Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Ukrainians are included in the mission. The United States, the European Union, and Russia should help defray the costs.