Russia’s relatively calm response following the results of a disputed referendum on sovereignty in two of eastern Ukraine’s regions is small comfort to Ukraine or the West, both having declared the vote a sham. But it is something, at least, and should be seized upon to maintain peace and minimize the chances of widespread fighting and bloodshed.
The recent votes in Donetsk and Luhansk were said by rebel leaders in both provinces to underscore overwhelming support for self-rule, but leaders in Donetsk went further, declaring it a vote as to secede or to welcome outright absorption by Russia. In Luhansk, leaders announced they will not participate in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, an event western countries insist is the only means of determining support in that country for a new national government.
Russia is urging that discussions on the future of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces be referred now to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The peace plan, being brokered by Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, calls for immediate amnesty, talks on decentralization and on the status of the Russian language.
Last week, Ukraine responded that while it rejected the results of a referendum that had no independent monitoring — indeed, journalists reported ballot boxes were see-through, the vote turnout was wildly overstated and there were instances of double voting — it was prepared to engage in constitutional talks with all the country’s regions on some sharing of power.
It is the first real sign of movement toward common ground from Ukraine and Russia following the overthrow earlier this year of the Yanukovych government, and in the wake of that, the subsequent Russian takeover of Crimea.
The West is anxious about the prospects of federalism in Ukraine, as it is feared it would permit Russia to consolidate its creeping hold on eastern regions where the Russian language and sympathies are highly concentrated.
The way forward for Ukraine now is as murky as was the real meaning of the referendum. Leading up to the votes, opinion polls found the majority of respondents in the eastern provinces preferred a unified Ukraine, and the ballot question asked only if people wanted to move to self-rule. Some voters interviewed said they supported secession and affiliation with Russia; others said that they voted only for greater independence and distrusted the new government in Kyiv that many regarded as the product of an illegal coup backed by fascists.
There is reason for trepidation by the West. NATO reported there was no sign Russian troops pulled back from its border with Ukraine, despite a pledge from President Vladimir Putin to do so.
But Mr. Putin has set out what ostensibly appears to be a calm way forward, seeking to engage Ukraine in peace talks.
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, while rejecting the demands for independence from Donetsk and Luhansk’s insurgents, has now agreed to talk. That can assure presidential elections will proceed. It is also the best hope of suppressing sporadic incidents of violence and bloodshed.
Canada and its western allies need not approve the referendum results in supporting such talks. Indeed, mediated negotiations are the best means to sorting out a possible, workable resolution to the threat of a war no one is prepared to fight.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.