As the Kremlin and the West engage in a confrontation over Crimea reminiscent of the Cold War, a Ukrainian diplomat has published a peace plan designed to “save Ukraine from Russian aggression”.
As Crimeans head to the polls on Sunday (16 March) in a referendum to decide whether to join Russia, the West appears to having exhausted its supply of warnings that this move would be a point of no return, with deep consequences for Moscow.
So far, the Kremlin has appeared indifferent to Western pressure. Sergey Zheleznyak, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview that Russia was less concerned by a return to the Cold War than of the “genocide” against its brothers in Ukraine. His statements appear to indicate that Moscow’s “defense” of Russian-speaking citizens could spread from Crimea to mainland Ukraine.
According to Russia, the new authorities in Kyiv have taken power by armed force, and are dominated by extreme nationalists and “fascists” who threaten the lives of Russian-speaking population and Jews.
Faced with the Kremlin's uncompromising stance, the EU is preparing sanctions against Russians, including travel bans and asset freezes on an as-yet-undecided list of people and firms accused by Brussels of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures would be imposed on 17 March, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, unless diplomatic progress was made [read more].
Meanwhile, diplomatic activity continues unabated to try to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk visited Washington yesterday (12 March). His host, US President Barack Obama, warned Russia it faced costs from the West unless it changed course in Ukraine.
However, both Obama and Yatseniuk indicated that a potential diplomatic opening could give Russians a greater voice in the disputed Crimean region.
Yatseniuk told a forum in Washington after his White House meeting that his interim government was ready to have a dialogue and negotiations with Russia about Moscow's concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
Asked what a political solution would look like, Yatseniuk said: "If it is about Crimea, we, as the Ukrainian government, are willing to start a nationwide dialogue [about] how to increase the rights of [the] autonomous republic of Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with other aspects, like language issues."
In the meantime, a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomat submitted to the Ukrainian service of radio Free Europe an article, outlining a peace plan designed to appease Russia and preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
According to the plan by Alexandr Chalyiy, who holds the rank of ambassador, Ukraine would return to the agreement signed on 21 February by the Ukrainian opposition and the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland, Germany and France. In fact, Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov had also recently pleaded to return to this document as a way to unblock the stalemate between his country and the West regarding Ukraine.
The major difference from the 21 February plan according to Chalyiy would be that former president Viktor Yanukovich would not return to power, which is actually accepted by Russia. Another issue are the elections, which according to the 21 February agreement are to be held soon after the new constitution is adopted, but not later than December 2014.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament decided that elections would be held on 25 December. Either the elections should be held later, or the new constitution should be adopted before 25 May on first reading, Chalyiy proposes, indicating a preference for the second option.
On 25 May, Chalyiy proposes that a constitutional referendum is held together with the elections, and that the parliament passes on second reading the constitution in September.
In addition, Ukraine would declare its non-aligned status, via a document co-signed with the USA, Russia, UK, China and France, in their capacity of guarantors for the 1994 Budapest memorandum, according to which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal.
Ukraine would also immediately sign the political chapters of its EU Association Agreement (AA), declaring that it would sign the trade chapters following trilateral consultations involving the EU and Russia. Ukraine would also commit to opening free trade agreement with Russia.
Last but not least, according to this plan, a new plan for autonomy of Crimea would be elaborated, the peninsula remaining part of Ukraine. The new status of Crimea would be enshrined in the new Ukrainian constitution.
According to Chalyiy, such an agreement would pave the way for the creation of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, with the integration of Russia into it, instead of its antagonising this country.
Ukraine will have a historic chance to play a role in these positive process, the alternative being the Cold War, or even a protracted armed conflict on Ukrainian territory, the diplomat writes.
According to EU sources, the political chapters of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement could be signed on 20 March, when EU leaders gather for their Spring summit.
At an extraordinary summit on 6 March, EU leaders denounced Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and threatened Moscow with sanctions if it did not take steps to “de-escalate” the crisis.
EU Leaders strongly condemned Russia's “unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity", and called on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces and allow immediate access for international monitors.
Failing to do so, EU leaders threatened Moscow with sanctions, including travel bans and assets freeze, which could potentially hit Russian President Vladimir Putin.