Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, gave its preliminary approval to a set of constitutional amendments that would grant special status for the oblasts of the Donbas region, and, it is hoped, end the rebellion that has rocked Ukraine's eastern provinces since February of last year. Progress toward a peaceful settlement along the lines set out by the Minsk II accord has been slow in coming, thanks in equal parts to Kiev's foot-dragging, Russia's regional ambitions and the fiercely independent streak that runs deep in Ukraine's eastern oblasts.


The amendments are a far cry from the initial demands of the eastern rebels — who wanted control over borders and the ability to veto foreign policy moves such as EU and NATO membership — but the measure of independence over such matters as language, militias, judicial elections and cross-border collaboration with neighboring Russian regions is a painful but necessary step toward stability for Ukraine.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland attended the vote and said the result shows that Ukraine is "doing its job" and keeping faith with the Minsk II accord. Nuland's presence during the vote shows the U.S. backs the constitutional amendments wholeheartedly, a sign of support which aroused suspicions among some Ukrainian commentators that Washington has made a backroom deal with Moscow to sacrifice Ukraine in exchange for Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinWhite House calls Microsoft email breach an 'active threat' As gas prices soar, Americans can blame Joe Biden How to think about Russia MORE's signature on the Iranian nuclear settlement. Nuland called such allegations "offensive."

The line coming from Europe is much the same as that from Washington, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande urging Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept "partial self-rule" for the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Even Russia seems ready to accept watered-down version of the "federalism" it had previously advocated. The preliminary approval of the constitutional amendments marks the first step toward a reconciliation between Ukraine's staunchly divided factions and an end to the country's overly centralized, winner-takes-all political that which has alienated the predominantly Russian-speaking east.

For their part, the separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, announced in early July that local elections would take place on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, respectively. Zakharchenko and Plonitsky are trying to present regional autonomy as a fait accompli and they are not waiting around for Kiev to meet its obligations under the Minsk II peace accord. One way or another, the men in control of Donetsk and Luhansk will have the measure of independence they seek. The U.S., France, Germany and even Russia are all now essentially on the same page vis-a-vis autonomy for the Donbas. Meanwhile, the Rada, Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk are playing a very slow game of catch-up with the facts on the ground, the terms of Minsk II and the economic consequences of losing the Donbas.

Despite Kiev's reluctance and occasional bombast, the reality is that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk have no other option but to accept the eastern provinces' moves toward regional autonomy. Under the Minsk II accord and the law on temporary self-rule status for Donetsk and Luhansk passed in September last year, the Rada must make provisions for regional autonomy or risk a revival of the conflict and an insurmountable economic crisis.

Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk and their faction in parliament may not like how the decentralization process is proceeding — too quickly, and, as they see it, with the cart before the horse — but Ukraine's economic future depends on keeping the eastern provinces in Kiev's fold. Donetsk is Ukraine's most populous oblast and historically one of its most prosperous. Together with Luhansk, the two regions of the Donbas were home before the war to nearly 6 million people and produce about 17 percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product and 23 percent of its total industrial output. The crucial steel industry of the Donbas depends on high-quality coal imported from Russia, while much of the iron ore it uses comes from western Ukraine. Anthracite mined in the Donbas provides about 14 percent of power consumption in Ukraine's western provinces. Like it or not, Ukraine is united economically, if not yet politically.

The rebellion and its aftermath have frozen industrial output in the Donbass, forcing Kiev to seek emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other parties just to keep the country solvent. International donors have made clear that integration of the wayward eastern provinces will be a precondition for any further financial assistance. Neither the western nor the eastern provinces are economically viable on their own, a fact that has also been pushed by civil society groups like Restoring Donbass. A divided Ukraine would put both halves in thrall, one to the EU, the US and the IMF; the other to Russia. Neither Kiev nor the separatist oblasts want this to happen. Compromise is essential to Ukraine's economic survival, a fact that leaders on both sides of the battle line are just beginning to realize.

Popova is a Russian-British freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern European politics and society.