On April 17, as foreign ministers from the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine struck a deal to ease mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s strategy for the region -- “federalism” or, more likely, partition -- seemed to win out.
The agreement itself quickly fell through. Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine ignored the statement’s requirements to disarm and return occupied spaces to what the announcement vaguely called their “legitimate owners.” But symbolically, the accord affirmed Russia’s ability to set the agenda for the conflict in Ukraine and accepted the country’s de facto annexation of Crimea. It also granted legitimacy to a Russian-led “partition-disguised-as-federalism” solution for the Ukrainian crisis and thus laid the groundwork for similar Russian behavior in Ukraine’s eastern reaches.
If the Russian plan does succeed, it is an open question what the new Ukraine would look like. The Russian justification for Crimea’s annexation was a need to protect a besieged Russian Crimean minority. Of course, there are lots of ethnic and linguistic minorities living in lots of countries around the world; if borders corresponded to ethnicity, European countries such as Switzerland or Spain would cease to exist as we know them. But if we suspend reality for the sake of argument and buy, for a moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument, there are still three possible futures for Ukraine.
In the first scenario, Ukrainian regions with a majority of ethnic Russians would become part of Russia, either as full members of the Russian Federation, as was the case in Crimea, or as autonomous regions within Ukraine that have strong alliances with Russia, as in Georgian Abkhazia since 2008.
In this scenario, Russia could not lay claim to any Ukrainian district except Crimea, where 58 percent of residents identified themselves as ethnically Russian in the last reliable census, held in 2001. In all other districts -- including in those in which pro-Russian separatists have occupied government buildings and led protests -- ethnic Russians