Blogs > Walid Phares > The Strategic Consequences of an East-West Ukrainian Split

Feb 23, 2014

The Strategic Consequences of an East-West Ukrainian Split

tags: Russia,Putin,Walid Phares,Ukraine

Dr Walid Phares is Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism, an advisor to members of Congress and the author of The Coming Revolution. His book The Lost Spring will be published in March 2014

The world is now experiencing the reality of two Ukraines rising out of this former Soviet Republic. The main overarching question to be considered from the Kremlin to the White House is about the strategic consequences. How will these two entities coexist, who will become their allies, how will this divide affect regional alliances and international politics? Another series of perhaps even more dramatic questions may also arise regarding the distribution of power between these two entities—as it pertains to Moscow’s position, possible intervention and reaction to what it may consider a Western advance into its southern flank. It may be too early for daily observers and political analysts focusing on the tactical considerations to weigh in. There is an endless number of situations that may go awry and clashes to calm down—not to mention the rising tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine, but on the global scale, in a historic perspective, the dice have been irreversibly rolled: the two peoples forming the Ukrainian nation have now separated on the ground after the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych from his presidential palace in Kiev. Two authorities have been declared within the country, one declared by the parliament and the other by eastern local governments in the provinces. After months and weeks of confrontation in Kiev’s downtown, a violent outburst between the demonstrators and the police forces led to a long-brewing explosion. The clashes showed the depth of disagreement, but they did not create it. European mediations and road maps were not expected to succeed since the issue was not about a new election or even about corruption. Such political crises are omnipresent within all countries experiencing transition, but the problem in Ukraine was one on a greater scale.

Historically, from before, during and even after the end of the Cold War, there were two cultural views in the country that became Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western Ukraine, a land of farmers and Catholics, has been looking toward Europe—where other former Eastern bloc members Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic ended up after the Cold War. Eastern Ukraine, closer to Russia, industrial and mostly Orthodox, has been looking toward Moscow as their historical ally. These were, in fact, two nations contained in one set of borders, a phenomenon experienced by dozens of official nation-states around the world, such as in Czechoslovakia, Georgia, former Yugoslavia and Cyprus. Some of these bi-national states can manage the internal differences as relative successes of institutionalized liberal democracies, such as in Canada and Belgium. Others descend into violence and chaos—as in Syria, Lebanon and Sudan. Czechoslovakia underwent the swiftest separation in the history of the world between its two “peoples.” But Ukraine’s politicians, dismissing the fact that their constituencies were culturally divided, vied for two decades for “all of Ukraine.” Both sides claimed the entire country as part of their universal views. Governments and oppositions succeeded in power, but the deeper issue of identity was never addressed. Each camp accused the other of corruption, un-patriotism and violence, and both sides felt they represented the “true values of the country.” But it was a country of two peoples, a matter Ukrainian politicians and many of their intellectuals refused to admit.

The 2014 urban explosion in Kiev and across the country unleashed the profound realities, rocketing them to the surface. The president represented the “Eastern side” of Ukraine, and the opposition and its bloc in parliament represented the “Western side” of the same country. The deepening clashes in the capital ignited the underlying cultural differences into political action. Within days, the towns and villages along the Polish borders declared their rejection of Kiev’s government. And after the capital fell into the hands of the protesters, backed by their lawmakers, the provinces in the East gathered under one leadership to reject the new government. Ukraine is now two—regardless of how events develop from here.   

The geopolitical consequences, hard to discern in the fog of confrontations to come, are nevertheless projectable. The Europe Union will move to link up with and absorb Western Ukraine. It may be slow and gradual, but it will eventually happen. Millions of skilled workers in those provinces are needed by Europe’s economies. Russia will cast its strategic umbrella over Eastern Ukraine and notify the West that any further advance into their core ally will be a crossing of a red line, prompting Moscow’s direct intervention. Western Ukraine will become a partner of European countries, and some will welcome them warmly, such as Poland and the UK.  Others, such as France, will be more cautious partners, fearing Ukraine’s Russian sympathies. Eastern Ukraine will find itself a direct ally of Russia and will insure to the latter greater facilities on the Black Sea. In fact, the core strategic interest Moscow has in Ukraine—with or without President Putin—are the seaports of the Black Sea, the only operational bases for Russia’s southern fleet throughout the year. If these ports fall under Western Ukraine, Russia will consider it as a casus belli, and Russia may move militarily on the ground. If these ports remain under Eastern Ukraine’s Kharkov’s control, the balance of power may be seen as maintained.

The battle for Ukraine could have an impact on many strategic levels in the Middle East and other regions. In Syria, Assad’s regime will lose meaningful Russian logistical support if Crimea goes west. Iran’s Ayatollahs would also feel the impact if Russia emerges weaker from the confrontation. The impact could be felt as far as Venezuela and the Pacific depending on how Ukraine’s domestic strife evolves or resolves. The hope now is that Washington will play smart cards and transform the dividends of the outcome into gains for freedoms around the world. The last few steps in U.S. foreign policy, however, have not been encouraging.

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