The threat of separatism in Ukraine has become all the more palpable following the overthrow of Ukraine’s newly deposed leader, Viktor Yanukovych. A country with an array of pre-existing tensions based upon ethnicity, culture and geopolitical allegiance, the destabilization which is already and no doubt will continue will only emphasize these tensions. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, Ukraine has always experienced Balkanized divisions. Although trying to explain these divisions by mere geography would be to oversimplify these issues, there is a trend; where you live with respect to East or West does matter. And to an international audience who know little of the internal affairs of much of the areas once controlled or influenced by the Soviet Union, this is perhaps the best yardstick by which to examine Ukraine’s importance, economically and geopolitically.
A quick glance at the evening news will tell you that while the westward 2/3s of Ukraine are ‘pro-European’, the remaining 1/3 considers its loyalties as lying with Russia. Western Ukrainians have always suffered from the accusation by their Eastern brethren that they first capitulated to Nazism, then to the ‘West’. As well as being ‘culturally Russian’ on matters such as its shared language, its hangover of Soviet-style economics and its loyalism, the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine remain fiercely opposed to the protest movement which ousted Yanukovych. The same riot soldiers who were shelled and attacked in Kiev were given a hero’s return in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s second city, in the Crimean peninsula. A strong symbol of the region’s ardent pro-Russian stance has been to just today instate a new mayor of Sevastopol, Aleksei Chaliy, a Russian-born.
Russia, who have already been warned not to consider moving troops into areas where they would be overwhelmingly welcomed, have been accused of secretly stirring up separatist sentiment. What makes these accusations so hollow is that such a sentiment doesn’t need to be ‘stirred up’ at all; it is a permanent ethos held by the loyalist peninsulas across the South East of Ukraine. Seeing the aggression in Kiev against Yanukovych as illegitimate, the factionalism between ‘East’ and ‘West’ shall, if allowed to run its course, see a split in the Ukraine.
A split of this kind seems forthcoming. In peacetime, such a split could have been engineered smoothly, with the example of the Czechs as one such successful blueprint; in such a destabilized country, however, a rift of this sort is unlikely to not turn ugly. A geographical division between the two segments of what we currently know as Ukraine would not have been a bad outcome, were a clean break to have been assured. But, what with continually building pressure from both the EU who would oppose such a break-up for their own ends, and from Russia who oppose it for theirs, this seems unlikely.
Another problem, easy to solve in peace but near impossible to solve in a moment of disunity like this, is to explain away the immensely difficult hurdle that all of Ukraine’s naval powers, as well as Russia’s, subsist in the Black Sea, to the south of the country. As the Hobbeseian tendency in human nature attests, weaponry and defense may be where the argument for separation becomes heated, even violent; people who end up having less guns than their ‘rival’ will be hard to satisfy.
As natural as such divisions could occur, it would seem very unlikely that were such a split to happen following the recent upsurge of revolutionary behaviour in Ukraine, violence would not occur at some level. The question which follows is, were the separatism prevalent in Ukraine to become violent, what would be the fallout of that?
-EU-Russian relations would be strained like nothing else could, with each respectively picking their sides and offering support for their own advantage(s).
-Oil flow would suffer immense disruptions, punishing the world economy. Ukraine’s location acts as a bottleneck for all pipelines running from Russia to the West; unrest could halt much of this movement.
-Fundamentalist Islam would skyrocket in the region. If one thing can be said of Putin, his strongman approach towards Islamist terrorism has been very effective (a case in hand is the lack of disruptions at the just ended Sochi games). If Ukraine suffers further destabilization as a result of internal violence, Putin’s approach will not be possible.
The following days and weeks will, I hope, prove much of this prediction very much wrong. All that the international community can do for the moment is to watch this space intently.