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Five Ways for Kerry to Avoid Putin's Yalta Trap

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry turned his plane around last weekend to go to Paris and begin talks to resolve the crisis in Ukraine with his Russian opposite, Sergei Lavrov. This was a meeting about Ukraine, without Ukraine at the table -- the kind of negotiation that some diplomats with long experience of Russia believe is a trap for the West and a plain bad idea.

Here are five points to keep clear as this diplomacy track gets going:

1) Russia is playing by different rules.

Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin have parlayed an alternative reality, which has no basis in fact, into a position of strength. This virtual reality includes a non-existent fascist threat to the lives of Russian speakers in Ukraine and the right to invade to protect them. Trade nothing away on the basis of this virtual reality.

2) Don't accept partial troop withdrawals.

If Putin commits to not attack Ukraine, he won't need an invasion force of any size in place. By contrast, many of the troops supposedly exercising on Ukraine's border are conscripts who will need to be rotated out of service. Partial troop movements would be fake bargaining chips traded for real concessions.

3) Trade no NATO for no Eurasian Union.

Lavrov will probably make big deal out of getting the U.S. to promise not to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or European Union to include Ukraine, citing Russia's history and security interests. Yet NATO accession has been off the table in Ukraine for years, and the EU doesn't want Ukraine as a member. So, go ahead and agree to a temporary moratorium on inviting Ukraine to join the Western alliances, and make it apply to Putin's desired Eurasian Union of Russian buffer states, too. Important: Don't give away Ukraine's right to sign trade deals and adopt EU standards and polices in the meantime, or to choose its own alliances in the long term. That right to choose is what this crisis is about.

4) Beware of agreeing to redraw Ukraine's constitution to suit Putin.

Stick with two principles: Any change to Ukraine's constitutional structure must be decided in a nationwide Ukrainian referendum -- not in individual regions, as Ukraine's deposed President Viktor Yanukovych is proposing. And any agreement with Russia must refer to decentralization of authority (which Ukraine's government is already offering) and not complete federalization, as Russia is demanding -- with the understanding that the latter means regional vetoes over national and foreign policies. The language is important: It frames the debate and sets expectations.

5) Remember Yalta (Ukrainians do).

At the Yalta conference in 1945, Josef Stalin also played by different rules. He claimed that "Poland is a question of life and death for Russia," and that controlling it was therefore non-negotiable. In exchange, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a number of assurances, including that Poland would hold free elections. In each case Roosevelt was trading something for nothing (Stalin had no intention of allowing free elections). Don't play Roosevelt to Lavrov's Stalin 70 years on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter @MarcChampion1

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Toby Harshaw at