Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently advocated a “federal system of government” for Ukraine:
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of a federalist approach to Ukraine’s ethnic conflicts out of hand merely because of he dubious source. Rejecting federalism for Ukraine merely because the idea is backed by Putin would be an example of co-blogger Eugene Volokh’s “reverse Mussolini fallacy.” Although Mussolini was evil, we should not reject everything he advocated merely because it was supported by an evil person (e.g. – as Eugene puts it, the fact that Mussolini “made the trains run on time” doesn’t prove that making trains run on time is bad). What is true of Mussolini is also true of Putin.
Federalism has often been a successful strategy for reducing ethnic conflict in divided societies. Cases like Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada are good examples. Given the deep division in Ukrainian society between ethnic Russians and russified Ukrainians on the one hand and more nationalistic Ukrainians on the other, a federal solution might help reduce conflict there as well by assuring each group that they will retain a measure of autonomy and political influence even if the other one has a majority in the central government. Although Ukraine has a degree of regional autonomy already, it could potentially would work better and promote ethnic reconciliation more effectively if it were more decentralized, as some Ukrainians have long advocated.
At the same time, even the best possible federal system is only likely to diminish intergroup hostility gradually. It cannot dissipate longstanding antagonisms and mistrust overnight. In order for Ukrainians to get that time, there must be effective safeguards against further Russian military intervention. If Russia can invade and occupy additional parts of Ukraine at any time, that undermines Ukrainian factions’ incentives to invest in the success of a longterm constitutional settlement. Ukrainian nationalists will also be reluctant to concede greater autonomy to ethnic Russians if that autonomy can turn into a pretext for annexation by Russia, as has already happened in the case of the officially autonomous region of Crimea.
UPDATE: Russia’s hypocrisy on this issue is highlighted in the Ukrainian foreign ministry’s response to Lavrov’s statement:
In an unusually harsh statement issued late on Sunday in reaction to comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said he was making demands on Ukraine which Russia would never allow itself at home.“Why does Russia not introduce federalism … Why does it not give more powers to national regions of the (Russian) Federation .. Why does it not introduce state languages, other than Russian, including Ukrainian, which is spoken by millions of Russians?”, it asked.“There’s no need to preach to others. It’s better to put things in order in your own house,” it said.
The Ukrainian government’s point is well-taken. However, Russian hypocrisy does not prove that federalism isn’t the right approach for Ukraine.