If Ukraine Disintegrates Will it Be a Divorce or an Explosion?

December 10, 2013

Dan Kaszeta is a chemical weapons expert, but he has also spent many years of his life studying Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. He raises many good points about the deep internal divisions within Ukrainian society. As Ukraine is now in the midst of its second period of major popular unrest in less than 10 years, his warning that a civil war is not out of the realm of possibility should be seriously considered. — Ed.

Recent dramatic demonstrations in Kiev have highlighted Ukraine’s tenuous position on the exact fault line between Russia and the European Union (EU). The current political situation has developed from the Ukrainian’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU. But today’s troubles are only a hint of much deep-seated angst.

The questions of Ukraine’s place in the world and its place in Europe are actually resting on an unsure foundation – the nature of Ukraine itself. What the world considers the borders of Ukraine to be today date only from 1954. What is and isn’t included in Ukraine, and where it begins and ends, has been a matter for debate and conflict for centuries. Measured along every important axis – ethnicity, language, religion, history and (even more importantly) perceptions of history and economics – modern Ukraine is a seriously divided place. Christian Orthodoxy in Ukraine is split into factions that have excommunicated each other. The view of the last century or so of history is particularly telling. Ask Ukrainians the following questions: Is Stepan Bandera (an anti-communist rebel) a hero or a villain? What caused the terrible famine in the 1930s? Was the end of World War II a liberation or a prison sentence? What church do you belong to and what does it think of the other Ukrainian churches? The scope and variety of answers that you will get will show you a country that disagrees on many things.

Ukraine could be easily considered five countries in one. Eastern Ukraine is heavily Russianized and looks as much to Moscow as to Kiev. Western Ukraine, including the historic region of Galicia, was part of central European empires, like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Hapsburg Empire, and the interwar Polish Republic. Its churches look to Rome at least as much as to the multiple and divided Orthodox patriarchs further east. Uzhhorod, in Western Ukraine, lies further west than 7 of the EU’s capital cities. Central Ukraine, the area around the capital Kiev, is an uneasy mix of both. Crimea has a distinct identity unto itself, and has only been part of Ukraine since a Soviet-era administrative decision in 1954. Crimea even voted for independence from Ukraine in 1992. Odessa is a polyglot multicultural city state like medieval Venice that is really its own thing entirely. The forces holding Ukraine together may not be up to the long-term task of keeping a viable state within the current boundaries.

Countries with such diversity can stay together. But they often don’t. What will happen? The best case outcome is a western-oriented peaceful democratic Ukraine, integrated into the European mainstream. The more likely outcome is decades of continuing muddle between east and west, much as in the last twenty years. But I am most worried about the worst-case scenario, a situation that few want to talk about. Civil war. Some observers felt the risk during the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. The fault-lines that run through Ukraine are easily as serious as those in the former Yugoslavia, and we all know how that ended. It would only take one serious provocation for things to go badly wrong in Ukraine. Civil war in Ukraine would be terrible in its own right, but would be even worse because of the potential for dragging Russia into it. The 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict shows that Russia is not afraid of using armed force to carve regions off of its neighbours, such as Abkhazia, even ones nominally aligned with the west.

Perhaps the best thing Ukraine and the world could do to avert such a disaster is to manage a split pre-emptively, before anyone gets hurt. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the collapse and breakup of the historic Russian/Soviet empires is not yet over, and that the breaking-up process needs to continue a little longer to achieve a workable equilibrium for the people who live there. Both the philosophy and the mechanics of dividing Ukraine without warfare will be troublesome. A Western Ukraine, possibly even resurrecting the old names like Ruthenia and Galicia, will naturally seek its home among the West. At a minimum, we could hope for a “velvet divorce” of Western Ukraine, like the amicable breakup between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This alone might solve some problems and reduce the pressure considerably. The procedural mechanics are daunting; how does one hold a referendum like this? A national referendum will end up with the present muddle. Regional plebiscites are the answer. Scotland’s example shows that a regional referendum as opposed to a national one isn’t just a notion – it is happening next year in an EU state.

Eastern Ukraine is saddled with industrial infrastructure that mainly sells to Russia, and its population is much more Russian in outlook than anything else. I suspect that Putin’s Russia really wants this land, and it probably is not worth a war to prevent that. Such realignments are not completely out of consideration in modern times; the Moldova-Romania situation proved that. Crimea has never had strong ties either to Ukraine or Kiev. One could argue that Odessa would be too small to survive on its own, but we should remember that the Odessa region actually has a population larger than Slovenia, Estonia, Kosovo, Malta, or Montenegro.

But all of this salami-slicing is around the edges. War, if it comes, will be over the middle. Kiev figures prominently in both Ukrainian and Russian psyches. Russians often consider Kiev the cradle of Russian civilization, and certainly the birthplace of Russian Christianity. But Ukrainian and Russian identities have diverged in the last millennium; can Ukrainians accept a national identity without Kiev? For most of history, the Tsarist period and the Soviet period, a Russo-centric view prevailed. Is Kiev another Jerusalem, destined to be the cause of angst and division for centuries? It will take the wisdom of Solomon to figure out how to reconcile the two viewpoints. Perhaps the least bad option is to reduce the current muddle to the middle, with a reduced central Ukraine bridging the gap between East and West.

It is not the cleanest solution, but one better than a war. I’ve been worried about this potential crisis for nearly twenty years now. If I figure it out a better solution, I’ll write another column.