Jan 29, 2005 | 05:23 GMT

6 mins read

Ukraine: The Quiet Before the Storm

By Peter Zeihan Well, this was certainly a whopper of a week in Ukraine. As a bit of a backgrounder, Ukraine has finally finished its presidential election process, which featured everything from a poisoning to a secessionist threat. The initial run-off between government candidate Viktor Yanukovich and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko ended in acrimony, with the opposition — backed to the hilt by the West — charging fraud. The result, after an ocean of Western pressure, a conveniently worded Supreme Court ruling and surprising last-minute inactivity in Russia, was a new run-off election that Yushchenko won handily. Needless to say, the West found the revote far more to its liking, both in terms of procedures and results. On Jan. 23, the legal wrangling was tidied up and Yushchenko was sworn in as Ukraine's newest president. Ukraine is the single most strategic piece of real estate in Russia's world. It is a plain stretching deep into the Russian heartland, across which it is quite easy to drive armored divisions. It also plays host to Russia's only deepwater, warm-water naval base, as well as the majority of Russia's major infrastructure connections to the outside world. Ukraine's potential Western alignment — the very topic on which Yushchenko campaigned — would make Russia an utterly indefensible entity. Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin — via spin doctors and in person — campaigned for the far more pro-Russian Yanukovich in an attempt to peg Ukraine firmly in the Russian camp. Conversely, for the West it was a strategic opportunity to push Russia to the wall that was eagerly seized by U.S. and European hands alike. In the end, Putin quietly stepped aside. Ukraine's new president has more than simply the East and West to bridge or spurn. He also has his own country's unity to somehow preserve. This is infinitely complicated by the fact that the Ukrainian rope is the East-West tug-of-war in microcosm. Yushchenko received more support in the west, while Yanukovich clearly dominated the south and east. This is more than regions rooting for their local boys; it is an issue of base identity. Ukrainian is the dominant language in the west; Russian pervades in the east. Western Ukrainians have friends and family in the newly expanded European Union; eastern Ukrainians look the other direction for kin and culture. Western Ukraine's trade with Europe continues to climb; Soviet-era infrastructure planning considered eastern Ukraine and southwest Russia to be a single entity. There are even separate flavors of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity, one of which looks to Moscow instead of Kiev for religious and moral guidance.
Keeping such a bifurcated entity intact would be a daunting challenge for anyone. It is no surprise that Ukraine never existed as an independent entity until 1991. Other such "states" in similar circumstances have found their centripetal desires insufficient for the task. Before all is said and done, Ukraine, too, likely will find itself broken. This probably will not take the form of secession — that would require a clear, sharp split that does not exist; the two halves of Ukraine bleed heavily into one another. That leaves the probability of a civil war. The question in our mind is whether such a split would feel more like the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia, the granite genocide of the Yugoslav wars or the subjugation of the Confederacy in the United States. Considering the interests of the great powers in this particularly piece of property, ill omens abound. Making matters worse, an early split is more likely than a later one. Yushchenko is not an idiot — he fully realizes he has a balancing act of heroic proportions ahead of him — but he remains limited by the choices of his past. For his orange revolution to succeed, he had to close ranks across the Ukrainian opposition and form a united front. This forced him into condominium with one Yulia Timoshenko, without whom his political movement would likely have failed. Timoshenko is a feisty Ukrainian oligarch whose anti-Russianness is overpowered only by her anti-Russianness. Her deliciously checkered past speaks of (alleged) asset-stripping deals as complex as her braids, (alleged) bribery as dire as her face is beautiful and a creativity that she uses with equal aplomb when charming audiences or gutting opponents. She is not much liked in eastern Ukraine. The Russians do not much care for her either. In fact, they have a warrant out for her arrest. On Jan. 24, Yushchenko made her his prime minister. When Yushchenko was in Moscow later that day to attempt to convince Putin that all was well with bilateral relations, there were a great many awkward, stony silences. It is difficult to imagine a more polarizing personality being put into a more domestically or internationally critical position. Actually, there is one: the Ukrainian presidency. Courtesy of Yushchenko's dioxin poisoning, Timoshenko is less than a step away. The Russians are understandably irate. Not only do they believe that Ukraine was stolen from them, there is a distinct possibility that Timoshenko could be the country's leader in short order. Shortly after leaving Russia, Yushchenko arrived in the European Union to declare EU membership to be Ukraine's short-term goal, leaving the Kremlin — and Ukraine's Russofied east — with absolutely no doubt as to what would happen should it patiently wait for events to unfold. The clock is ticking, and the likelihood of a peaceful Ukrainian waltz to the West requires optimism on a scale that STRATFOR simply cannot fathom. Neither can Moscow, which already has given an indication of what lies ahead when it chose not to rescind the bribery charges against its neighbor's new prime minister. Intelligence gathered from eastern Ukraine can best be translated as a low growl. Even if Russia as a state and a culture decides to swallow hard and let Yushchenko lead Ukraine its own way — something we consider ludicrously unlikely — the Ukrainian crisis will be far from over. It is not the kind of simple political squabble that happens regularly in the West. This is a fight over the soul of the country that Russia and the West both intruded upon for their own interests. For now, the West has the upper hand, but it would be foolish to assume this will remain the natural state of affairs. Nearly 20 percent of the Ukrainian population not only speaks Russian, they are Russian by ethnicity. It will not take much support — if any — from the outside to get them to stand up for themselves.

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