Russia and the United States have agreed to work for a diplomatic solution in the Ukraine crisis through an "inclusive constitutional reform," the two country’s top diplomats said after their meeting in Paris.
Emerging from four-hour talks at the Russian embassy in the French capital late on Sunday Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry summed up the essence of their agreement in remarkably identical statements even though they spoke at separate press encounters.
After stating that Russia and the U.S. differed on the causes of the crisis in Ukraine, Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry said they had agreed on the importance of «finding a diplomatic solution» towards four priority goals:
- assure minority and language rights;
- disarm irregulars and provocateurs;
- launch an inclusive constitutional reform;
- hold free and fair elections.
The verbatim identical statements would suggest Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry had put their agreement in writing.
While the constitutional reform came closer to the end of the announced list of priorities, it is clearly by far the most important part of the Russian-American agreement.
However, as often is the case with such agreements, the devil is in the detail.
Moscow and Washington seem to have different views on what should be the end result of the constitutional reform process. Mr. Lavrov stated in no uncertain terms that Ukraine should transform itself from a unitary state into a federation with broad autonomy rights for its regions.
Mr. Kerry, for his part, insisted that it is up to Ukrainians to decide "what kind of definitions work for them."
"It’s not up to us to make any decision or any agreement regarding federalisation," Mr Kerry said.
Mr. Lavrov, while agreeing that "nobody can impose any configuration on Ukrainians," made it clear that federalisation was the only way to prevent Ukraine from splitting along the east-west fault lines.
"The west, east and south profess rather opposite values. In order for Ukraine to function as a single state, all its regions without exception must strike compromise," Mr. Lavrov said.
The new Ukrainian government has angrily rejected federalization, saying it would amount to “complete capitulation of Ukraine, its dismemberment, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.”
The U.S. opposes the federal structure for Ukraine for the same reason as Kiev does – the reform would give Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions veto power over a possible decision by the central government to join NATO or the European Union.
It remains to be seen who gets the upper hand in the constitutional reform battle, but Russia has masterly played its hand at the Paris talks. Hours after Mr. Kerry voiced “strong concern” about “very large Russian force” near Ukraine’s borders that is “creating a climate of fear and intimidation” and sternly demanded from Mr Lavrov the “drawdown and redeployment” of the forces, Ukrainian media reported that Russia had begun pulling back its troops from the Ukrainian border.
This enables Mr. Kerry to claim diplomatic success, which could well be the main purpose of the Russian force buildup in the first place.