A tale of two Ukraines – is it even possible?

By Calum Heaton

Stretching less than 530 miles down the Dniester River in Moldova is a living relic of the past. The “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic”, more commonly known as Transnistria, is a communist breakaway state founded in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fearing the complete removal of Russian influence in the country, including the eradication of the Russian political infrastructure and language, Russophilic Moldovans created their own state. Though not living in a state that oozes historical anachronism like Transnistria, commentators have suggested a separate Russophile Eastern Ukraine could be possible.

Ukraine has always been a country subjugated to the will of another. Even as far back as 1569, Ukraine has been under the yoke of Poland-Lithuania, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires and eventually the USSR. Furthermore, Ukrainian history has almost always been marked by war, rebellion and arguably genocide. Today, as Kyiv begins to take on the image of Stalingrad as opposed to the cultural centre of Eastern Europe, commentators have argued that a partitioned Ukraine will ensure some form of peace and stability.

Justification for this has risen from the apparent division, often best portrayed in voter intentions, between the pro-Russian East of Ukraine and the nationalist West. Around a sixth of Ukraine is Russian, a product of Russification which goes all the way back to 1700. In contrast to this, “Ukrainianisation” was introduced in the mid 2000s in order to combat the Russian elements of the country. However, this was only taken to heart by the political class, and not the whole Ukrainian population. To simply make a point, then President Victor Yushchenko insisted on using an interpreter when speaking to Vladimir Putin even though being fluent in Russian.

Those supporting partition have argued that there is a huge contrast between western and eastern Ukraine – often exemplified by voter intention maps. At face value, it would appear the nationalist vote is entirely relegated to the west and the pro-Moscow one to the east. However, the abolition of Propiska (permits which limited internal migration) has allowed a greater mix of ethnicity in Ukraine. The west/east divide is not as stark as some may think. Yet could independence for the predominantly ethnic Russian east still carry some weight?

As the revolution in Kyiv increases the tension in Crimea, Russia’s stronghold in Ukraine, the people there hope to fight the revolution. In the shadow of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, docked in Sevastopol since 1783 and accompanied by 25,000 troops, the people of the Crimea have started to act. Crucially, these people see themselves as Russian, not Ukrainian and a chance to breakaway from Ukraine is tempting. The leader of the Russian community in Crimea has already declared, “An opportunity like this has never come along.” More worryingly, the same organisation wrote to the Kremlin fearing the ‘genocide of the Russian people in Ukraine’ and that Russian troops must be moved into the country to prevent “the destruction of the Russian world.”

Though many commentators doubt this will result in extensive action, it is worth noting that the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 was justified by a similar appeal. Even so, messages like these have already fuelled the creation of militias in the east, and a clash with pro-Western would massively escalate the violence into civil war. Furthermore, there is some possibility Russia will react to this. After the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, Russian influence in the post-Soviet neighbourhood seemed to be diminishing. Reasserting Russian influence in the region is certainly a tasty prospect for the Kremlin.

Yet intervention and civil war would be a disaster for both Russia and the EU. For the former, pro-Russian communities and refugees would more than likely start to spill across the border. Most crucially though, Russia-Western relations would be in tatters. As Russia hopes to keep check over its limited sphere of influence, a Cold War style situation would not be unlikely. To exasperate the situation further, the Tartars in Eastern Ukraine still reel from the forced deportations carried out by Stalin. Á la Yugoslavia, this mix of competing ethnicities and ideologies is a toxic combination. On the other hand, the European Union would have another conflict zone on its periphery along with Syria. Economically, it is more than likely that Ukraine would default on its debts to both the EU and Russia.

For the western half of the country, the loss of the east would be a crucial blow to any possibility of sound economic survival if there were partition. Considering Ukraine has the GDP level of Poland in 1990 as a united country, division would destroy the western half in particular. In the south east of the country, agriculture and energy excel. Ukraine is in the unique position to own 30% of the world’s richest black soil that has huge potential. So much so, in September last year the Chinese government agreed to rent three million hectares over a fifty-year period in order to sustain its high levels of food consumption. For only one Ukraine to gain such fertile lands, the western half would be in dire need of agricultural aid and assistance, not to mention a desire to claim them back.

The United Nations estimates that a civil war can lead to a national economy falling back by thirty years. For a country already in a weak economic position, where economists have predicted Ukraine is likely to have less that $12 billion in its reserves by the end of the month, this is a highly dangerous option. Brash foreign intervention will do nothing but intensify the situation and lead to uneasiness in Kyiv, Washington, Moscow, Sevastopol and Brussels. It will only take one power to snap.