Russia's Plans to Partition Ukraine

The Kremlin's leaders have set their sights beyond Crimea. How should the West react?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Russian ambassador's residence in Paris. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)

In the weeks since Russian forces seized Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s plan for mainland Ukraine has become increasingly clear: partition.

Putin’s ambassadors and ministers don’t use that word, of course. In talks with their U.S. and NATO counterparts, they prefer the word “federalism.” They want to organize manipulated referendums to create Russian-aligned governments in the eastern regions of Ukraine. These governments would be endowed with broad powers, including authority over trade, investment, and security. Russia would then reach deals with these governments in an arrangement that would amount to annexation in all but name.

Russia, of course, is itself one of the most centralized nations on earth. The president appoints regional governors, who in turn handpick the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate. The central government controls most state revenue, the police— really, almost everything.

But what Putin practices, he does not preach. Or rather, he always preaches a separate message: that he favors whatever enhances his power. In Russia, he maintains that power by crushing local governments. In Ukraine, he can preserve his power by smashing the central government.

In the context of Ukraine and its already-dysfunctional institutions, “federalism” is code for rule by local oligarchs in tandem with their Moscow overlords. Such an approach would dash any hope of Ukraine developing transparent and responsive institutions, honest policing, and an economy that offers something like opportunity to more than a well-connected few.

To date, however, the Kremlin’s federalist scheme has elicited only a weak response from the United States and other Western countries, which haven’t supported the approach but haven’t opposed it, either. “Weak” is not actually a forceful enough description. One NATO government minister had to repeat the word to me three times, with increasing volume, to convey the extent of his disgust with the G-7’s policy toward Russia’s intervention in Ukraine: “Weak. Weak! Weak!

The proposed Russian carve-up of Ukraine, mind you, is not intended to protect Russian speakers outside Russia. After all, Putin cares little about the health and welfare of Russian speakers inside Russia, where the life expectancy of a 15-year-old boy is three years lower than that of a 15-year-old boy in Haiti, according to the World Health Organization. The very concept of a “Russian speaker,” in fact, has little meaning in Ukraine. Russia suppressed the Ukrainian language in all the Ukrainian lands it ruled since 1875, with one short interval in the 1920s. Ukrainians can speak Russian without feeling Russian, in much the same way that Irish people can speak English without wishing to be re-annexed by England.

In advocating for a federalist Ukraine, the Russians are not acting out of humanitarian concern or responding to spontaneous pleas from the oppressed people of eastern Ukraine. Their moves are the product of strategy and pride:

1.  The Soviet Union put much of its armaments industry in eastern Ukraine. Independent Ukraine ranks as one of the top 10 arms exporters on earth, and Russia is its biggest customer. Antonov military-transport aircraft are built in eastern Ukraine, as are the motors for Russia’s helicopters and the anti-aircraft missiles carried by its fighter planes.

2.  Newly annexed Crimea draws its electricity and other crucial services from eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine closes its border with Crimea, Russia’s grip on the peninsula will rapidly become untenable. If adjoining Ukrainian territory can be detached from Kiev and Western Ukraine, the annexation will proceed much more smoothly.

3.  As Putin said in his speech justifying the annexation of Crimea, he cannot accept Ukraine as a distinct nationality. In tsarist times, the preferred Russian term for Ukraine was “Little Russia,” with all the condescension that phrase implies. The New Yorker’s David Remnick reports that Putin told President George W. Bush that Ukraine is “not even a country.” Putin, it seems, views Ukrainian independence as fundamentally absurd, as well as wrongheaded and dangerous.

4.  Twice in the past decade, protest movements have driven corrupt, authoritarian presidents out of office in Ukraine: first the Orange Revolution, in 2005, and then the Euromaidan uprising, in 2014. If Ukrainians can chase out such leaders and get away with it, Russians might someday wonder why they can’t do the same. For Putin, self-rule in Ukraine represents a direct challenge to his own power, and must be squelched by any means necessary.

For these reasons, Putin is promoting Ukrainian federalism, backed by the threat of Russian invasion. It will only go forward, however, if Ukraine can be bullied into submitting to it—and Western countries agree to be fooled into accepting it—as a “democratic” solution. Will we?

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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