Analysis: Advantage Russia, in talks with US over Crimea

LONDON - US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have vowed to continue negotiations aimed at defusing the Ukraine crisis. Yet it's becoming increasingly clear that each side holds very different views about the real purpose of these talks.

For Washington, the negotiations are about reversing Russia's occupation of Crimea and averting the danger of an all-out Russian invasion in Ukraine.

But for Moscow, the talks are about consolidating Russia's dominant position in the region.

Given such diametrically opposed objectives, the talks will only be able to produce an outcome if one of the negotiating parties makes a fundamental concession. And, for now, the Russians seem highly unlikely to blink first.

Russia initiated the current round of negotiations after President Vladimir Putin took the unusual step of telephoning US President Barack Obama at the end of last week with what Moscow billed as a "new set of initiatives".

The offer was tempting enough to persuade Mr Kerry to turn his plane mid-air and head to Paris for a meeting with Mr Lavrov.

The talks, which ended in the early hours of yesterday, produced no joint communique. Nor was there much agreement on whether they signified progress: While an ebullient Mr Lavrov claimed the negotiations were "very, very constructive", a visibly tired Mr Kerry merely noted that the two countries "agreed to continue our discussions soon".

Still, negotiating positions are clear enough. The US wants Russia to withdraw its estimated 40,000 battle-ready troops massed on Ukraine's frontiers who Mr Kerry claims "are creating a climate of fear and intimidation".

It also wants Russia to withdraw its soldiers from Crimea, and cooperate in the "demobilisation and disarmament of irregular forces and provocateurs".

But Moscow claims that the incorporation of Crimea into Russia is non-negotiable, and denies accusations that the concentration of troops at Ukraine's borders is menacing.

What Russian negotiators want is US agreement to what Mr Lavrov termed as a "deep constitutional reform" in Ukraine, from a centrally run country to a federation of autonomous regions in which ethnic Russians will allegedly feel more secure.

"We don't see any other way for the steady development of the Ukrainian state apart from a federation," Mr Lavrov added.

The Russian Foreign Minister must know his demands are unacceptable to the US. No American government can formally accept the military seizure of Crimea, and none can be seen to be negotiating the contents of Ukraine's future Constitution above the heads of the Ukrainians themselves.

"No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine," as Mr Kerry categorically put it yesterday.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that the US is prepared to discuss such matters is, in itself, a bonus for the Russians.

For, as long as the talks continue, there will be little incentive in the West to consider imposing further sanctions.

And, although Mr Kerry claims that the "US is consulting with Ukraine at every step of this process", the Americans have already accepted the status of ethnic minorities in Ukraine is a legitimate subject of discussions between themselves and the Russians.

The US also has a long history of claiming not to draft other people's charters, while doing precisely that, as the people of Iraq remember. So, from the Russian perspective, there is everything to be gained by continuing diplomatic feelers, and the massing of Russian troops is intended to concentrate America's minds.

Mr Kerry believes he has given nothing away by engaging in a dialogue with Russia. Yet decision- time may be approaching, and the choices facing him are hardly appealing. For Russia's demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine are very sweeping: They include a proposal that Ukraine's regions will have a say not only on local affairs, but also on "Ukraine's foreign policy direction", a more polite Russian way of saying that ethnic Russians in Ukraine will be able to block the country's pro-Western orientation.

Diplomatic niceties aside, the ultimate choice facing Mr Kerry remains stark: He can either reject the Russian offer and risk a dangerous showdown, or accept it, and consign Ukraine to the status of an impotent buffer zone between Russia and the West for years to come.

The fact that, at least for the moment, he refuses to rule out either option is in itself an indication of US hesitation which Russia is guaranteed to exploit.

That's why Mr Lavrov left Paris yesterday beaming.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

This article was published on April 1.

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