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Ukraine must have a seat at peace talks

The Obama administration insists that it won’t negotiate the future of Ukraine with Russia over the heads of the Ukrainians. But something very much like that has appeared to be happening since Vladimir Putin telephoned President Barack Obama on Friday.

According to the White House, the Russian president called “to discuss the U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution” and “President Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing.” Secretary of State John Kerry then rushed to Paris to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. No Ukrainians were present. The two men emerged to say that, in Kerry’s words, they had “agreed to work with the Ukrainian government and the people” to “assure” “the rights of national minorities,” “an inclusive constitutional reform process” and “free and fair elections.”

Russia’s proposals in these areas have been rejected by the Ukrainians, and with very good reason. Moscow is demanding that Ukraine be turned into a federation in which regions of the country close to Russia would have a veto over national policy. The Kremlin says that Russian must be made an official language equal to Ukrainian and that elections scheduled for May must be postponed.

The proposals would strip Ukraine of its sovereignty and render it ungovernable, which is exactly Putin’s intention. These poison pills are being proffered while up to 50,000 Russian troops have massed near the border, threatening an invasion.

Kerry objected to that deployment and reiterated that it was up to Ukrainians to “decide their future by themselves.” He added, however, that there “will have to be an input, obviously, of what the Russian view is” because “Russia obviously has long ties and serious interests.” That appeared to concede one of Putin’s most aggressive and dangerous claims: that Russia should have a say in the governance – even the constitutions – of its near neighbors.

U.S. officials say that isn’t the administration’s position and that Russia’s proposals are being treated as dead on arrival. They say that, by engaging the Russians in talks, the administration is at least delaying an invasion of Ukraine and buying time for the Kiev interim governmen.

Putin reportedly told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that a partial troop redeployment was under way. But it is obvious that the Putin regime has no intention of agreeing to a diplomatic solution that grants Ukraine political independence. While the talks go on, the administration and European Union appear to have suspended further action on sanctions, much to the relief of Putin’s oligarch cronies.

While it’s appropriate to offer Russia a diplomatic way out of the crisis, the administration’s approach is unbalanced. It should insist that Ukraine’s representatives be present in all meetings and that Crimea be put back on the agenda. As negotiations continue, so should work on sanctions. A good place to start would be with the Ukrainian and Russian companies that are stealing assets and property in Crimea even as Putin demands more.