Ukraine is the key state in Eastern Europe, by size, population, and strategic location. The country of 46 million inhabitants is poised for revolution, but no one can be certain whether this will culminate in a peaceful change of government through early elections or a crackdown that can degenerate into outright violence.
President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to abort an EU association agreement and free trade pact for Ukraine and instead seek closer economic ties with Moscow has outraged citizens who want to be part of Europe and not an appendage of Russia. However, Ukraine itself confronts internal divisions that can precipitate conflict. This is evident in marked differences between western and eastern regions in support for pro-European demonstrations in Kyiv.
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Aside from a large Russian population in Crimea and several regions bordering Russia, the Ukrainians are divided between a pro-Western majority in western and central parts of the country and a partially Russified citizenry in eastern and southern Ukraine. Although the majority of citizens seek closer ties with the EU, a substantial minority can be manipulated against such aspirations by local politicians and by Moscow.
Yanukovych has sought to straddle these national divisions by reassuring Ukrainians that he can pursue close ties with both Europe and Moscow. But Putin has made this precarious balancing act increasingly impossible through his persistent pressure on Kyiv to join the Moscow-centered Customs Union, billed as an alternative to association with the EU. This presents Ukrainians with a starker choice between West and East that threatens to tear the country apart.
The worst-case scenario could be reminiscent of Yugoslavia’s collapse, whereby distinct regions no longer recognize the authority of the central government and push for autonomy or even separation. Such confrontations could materialize either if the current administration collapses or if a state of emergency is declared to preserve the regime.
The western Ukrainian region of Halychyna has a distinct European identity and resents the pro-Muscovite policies of the Yanukovych regime, itself rooted in the more Russified regions of eastern Ukraine. In preparation for a potential crackdown, the mayor of Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, has warned that local police would take off their uniforms and defend the city if the central government were to send in forces to suppress the protests.
The Crimean peninsula in particular faces the specter of separatism, as the majority of inhabitants are Russians and the region hosts Russia’s military fleet. Russian parties in Crimea can appeal directly to Moscow for assistance if new elections are scheduled or if Ukraine makes a clear European choice.
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The Kremlin itself fears another Orange Revolution that would unseat Yanukovych through an early ballot with a victory for pro-Western parties pursuing closer ties with the EU. This would seriously damage Russia’s agenda for assembling a Eurasia Union from the former Soviet territories. Moscow is also anxious about democratic contagion from Ukraine that could challenge Putin’s authoritarian regime.
Russia’s propaganda machine is now in full gear claiming that the Ukrainian unrest is engineered by hostile Western powers. In response, Moscow may offer direct assistance to Yanukovych or demonstrate its “Slavic solidarity” with pro-Russian forces. Such a move could trigger an even more dangerous scenario, as the Ukrainian military will resist Russian incursions while some regions may capitalize on the opportunity to declare their secession.
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Thus far the U.S. reaction to the Ukrainian upheaval has been subdued, as the Obama administration evidently fears alienating Russia, which it needs to pursue its Middle East policies. But Ukraine is not Iran or Syria. The majority of the population wants to join a democratic Europe and not an authoritarian Eurasia. Washington needs to send a strong message to Putin not to interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs or risk repercussions. It is time for the White House to specify its options, as Ukraine stands on the brink of outright conflict.
Janusz Bugajski is a foreign policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States. His forthcoming book entitled Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared is out in February 2014