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Opinion

Is there a danger of warfare in Ukraine?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Russia,Vladimir Putin,Europe,Ukraine,World War I,Viktor Yanukovych

One hundred years ago, the major nations of Europe went to war after a terrorist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Is Europe headed to war 100 years later by the ouster -- apparently the legal ouster -- of Ukraine Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych? In the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead, who is inclined to take a long view of current crises, rings the alarm bell.

Try a thought experiment. Suppose Yanukovych in Kharkov declares that his reported resignation was either a fake or signed under duress and non-binding. Suppose then that Russia recognizes him as the legal president of Ukraine and he asks for Russia's help in restoring order. Suppose Russia then responds to this request by facilitating the consolidation of pro-Yanukovych authority in much of Ukraine while a new government in Kiev, recognized by the US and the EU, organizes the west.

The West now has some decisions to make, and the EU and the United States will have to make them together. The biggest one, that could be upon us much sooner than we think, is whether the West wants to keep Ukraine united. What would be the consequences if Russia and its Ukrainian friends move toward de facto and perhaps ultimately de jure partition? If partition is the answer, is the West prepared to let Russia unilaterally set the boundary? Will the West accept a de facto arrangement on the ground or will it insist or try to insist on referenda and fair elections? If partition is unacceptable, how exactly does the West propose to prevent or reverse it? What if the situation on the ground turns ugly, with fighting between militias, some backed by Russia?

Some analysts like David P. Goldman have recommended the partition of Ukraine, which has a very brief existence as an independent nation (a little more than 22 years in the last 500). They point out that in most elections starting in 1991 (you can access the election results, with regional percentages and maps, on this website), there has been a sharp division between the pro-Russia east and southern Ukraine and the pro-West northern and western Ukraine. This reflects different pasts. The Donetsk region in the east, Yanukovych's home turf, is adjacent to the similarly industrial metropolis in Russia and is heavily Russian-speaking; the Crimean peninsula, added to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by former Ukraine political boss Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s, is heavily Russian ethnically and includes Russia's big Black Sea naval base. In the west, the city of Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, indeed part of Austria rather than Hungary, before 1918 and was part of independent Poland between 1918 and 1939; only after World War II was this former Lemberg and Lwow added to the Soviet Union as Lwow (so it has had four names in 100 years). The Ukrainian language tends to dominate around Kiev and farther west. The recent electoral maps seem to show two very different Ukraines, with 90-percent support for Yanokovych in some parts of the east and 90-percent opposition farther west.

Some analysts like Alexader Motyl in Foreign Policy are downplaying these regional divisions. In the Washington Post, the admirable Anne Applebaum, author of brilliant books on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and wife of Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, insists that what divides Ukrainians is not ethnicity or regional base but ideas. The struggle, she writes, “pits Ukrainians (both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a ‘European' democracy with human rights and the rule of law, against Ukrainians (also both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) -- who support an undemocratic, oligarchic capitalist regime that is politically and economically dependent on Russia.” One hopes this is right, and I note that in elections before 2000, Ukraine was not as starkly divided regionally as it has been since; in 1991 every region voted 80 percent or more for independence except the Crimea (where 54 percent and 57 percent voted yes) and Leonid Kuchma, the choice of the east and south in the 1994 presidential election, carried much of the west and the north in the 1999 presidential contest. The map of the 2002 legislative election results shows multiple parties with various local bases. Only in 2004, with Yanukovych a candidate, do we see the sharp regional differences emerging.

American and European officials have been making statements opposing partition, calling for internal peace and a united Ukraine. But Vladmir Putin may have a different idea. As Mead points out, Putin has shown he is capable of acting fast, and there is every reason to believe that he does not want Ukraine to fall out of Russia's grasp. He did not hesitate to support provinces rebelling against the Saakashvili government in Georgia and to invade that country in 2008 to maintain their separatist status; later he pushed successfully for the election of a pro-Russia president. Would he do the same thing in Ukraine?

The thought of warfare breaking out across Ukraine — scene of so much carnage in World War II — is horrifying. The thought of Russia turning back an apparently popular political decision or preventing the holding of fair elections across Ukraine is horrifying as well. The United States and the NATO allies have no treaty obligation to intervene militarily and have many prudential reasons for refusing to do so. What the U.S. and the Europeans can do to back up their calls for peace and against partition in the face of a Russian challenge is less clear. We have to hope the Ukrainian military accepts the changes wrought in Kiev and that Russia refrains from armed intervention.

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