New reason to get along?

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Ukrainians Suspect Obama-Putin Cooperation

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's rare that official representatives of the U.S. visit foreign parliaments to persuade lawmakers to vote a certain way on some piece of legislation. Yet last week, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Kiev and did just that, as the Ukrainian parliament prepared to vote on amendments to the country's constitution.

Nuland was interested in just one line of the bill that President Petro Poroshenko submitted to the parliament, on page 7: 

18. The particulars of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are determined by a special law. 

It may sound like a bland provision, but it was worth Nuland's airfare, because the line was actually very controversial. Many legislators refused to vote for it. Mustafa Nayyem, a member of Poroshenko's parliamentary faction, explained that the "special law" might enable a future legislature to grant the rebellious, pro-Russian regions in eastern Ukraine powers amounting to legal secession. "I am convinced such a norm doesn't reflect the will of the Ukrainian people, which has already lost thousands of soldiers and continues to fight a bloody war to bring those regions back under Ukrainian jurisdiction," Nayyem wrote.

Nuland's job was to persuade Nayyem and like-minded legislators to change their minds. Before the vote, she invited the most recalcitrant of them for a meeting at the U.S. Embassy. One of the invitees, Leonid Yemets, said afterward that the American diplomat "insisted that this had to be a demonstration of Ukraine's compliance with the Minsk agreement," a cease-fire deal reached last February, which did indeed call for a special status for the rebel-held eastern areas, including the right to form their own militias. "It followed from her words that here we'd make a sacrifice and then we'd fight corruption in the rest of the country," another attendee of the meeting told Theinsider.ua.

But some of those who took part in the long conversation came away questioning Nuland's motives. "Why does the world want to impose on us a 'special status' for the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics?" Deputy Speaker Oksana Syroyid wrote on Facebook. "The world just wants this to become an 'internal conflict' because it's tired and it wants to get rid of this extremely uncomfortable topic."

It's true that Ukraine is off the front pages of global news media, and that's not good for a country that's dependent on Western aid and sympathy and, at the same time, coveted by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a satellite state or at least a buffer against further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some Ukrainian and anti-Putin Russian commentators saw Nuland's Kiev visit and her attempt to persuade the legislators as a sign that the U.S. is selling out Ukraine to Putin in exchange for his support for last week's nuclear deal with Iran.

"What exactly has Russia bought with its signature under the deal to close down Iran's nuclear program?" said former Ukrainian legislator Taras Stetskiv. "At least a special status for the Donbass in the constitution, and that's why Nuland came to control the vote." Andrei Illarionov, Putin's former advisor turned political foe, suggested that further Russian support on Syria and Iran was part of the deal "made without Ukraine's participation at Ukraine's expense."

Despite these warnings, last Thursday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to send the amendments as proposed by Poroshenko to the Constitutional Court for its anticipated approval. Poroshenko reacted angrily to his opponents' rhetoric. "I know a lot of patriotic poems and songs," the president said at one point, "and my wife says I'm a good singer." Then he launched into the national anthem. Nuland was there, as was U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, and she applauded when the vote went her way.

The Kremlin, for its part, has disparaged Poroshenko's constitutional proposals. Moscow and its proxies in eastern Ukraine wanted Ukraine's basic law to directly spell out a broad autonomy for the rebel-held regions. But that isn't evidence enough to quell the conspiracy theories. After all, the Ukrainian parliament would never vote for anything that Putin and his people support, so disapproving noises from Moscow only helped the legislation's passage.

Most likely, there was no such blatant deal. Yet it's not hard to believe that the U.S. and Russia might have the beginnings of a tacit understanding on Ukraine. Obama last week praised Putin for "compartmentalizing" helpfully on Iran. Putin, however, never gives anything away for free.

At the same time, Ukraine has overplayed its hand in demanding more international aid and sympathy. Russia's aggression in the east has stalled, yet Ukraine remains unruly, corrupt, economically supine and rife with armed groups. The ultranationalist organization Right Sector, which was active and useful in fending off the pro-Russian rebels, has recently started a mini-war to control cigarette smuggling in western Ukraine, something Poroshenko has struggled to extinguish. No wonder Nuland was dispatched to Kiev to protect the shaky Minsk cease-fire: Washington wants Ukraine to be stable. The Kremlin, for its part, is losing interest in the armed conflict it helped create: It wants to move on from military interference in Ukraine to quieter political destabilization.

When the big players' interests largely coincide, it doesn't take a conspiracy to get them to cooperate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net