The Ruthenians, a small ethnic group living in the Carpathian Mountains, asked Russia on Dec. 23 to recognize their independence from Ukraine. STRATFOR has been hearing rumblings in Ukraine and Russia that the group would act some time before the end of the year. The Ruthenians are an eastern Slavic group more than a million strong; they live mostly in Ukraine but also bleed over into Romania and Slovakia. They enjoy a degree of autonomy within Ukraine, but have annually petitioned Kiev for greater and better-defined autonomy. Now, the Ruthenians have simply skipped the petition and turned to Ukraine's large neighbor, Russia, to recognize their independence — as Russia did for the Georgian secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is not a random choice, nor a particularly surprising one. In fact, Moscow has been funding secessionist stirrings in the region ever since February, when the West recognized Kosovo's independence from Serbia against Russian wishes. Russia also has pushed the Ruthenians to act in an attempt to destabilize the Ukrainian government. In addition, the Ruthenians spread across a highly strategic swath of land in the Carpathian Mountains, which Russia considers its natural border with the West. This is also territory through which the main trunk lines transporting Russian natural gas pass on their way to Europe. For its part, Kiev is not simply ignoring the Ruthenian — or Russian — moves in its western province. Sources have told STRATFOR that Ukraine's intelligence services are planning a major operation to round up the ringleaders of the Ruthenian separatists in an attempt to squash their drive for independence. The small Slavic group has made its first real move, and now it is up to Russia to respond. Russia has the choice of recognizing the group (and thereby drastically escalating tensions with Kiev) or cutting a deal with the Ukrainians to keep the country from splitting apart — perhaps at the expense of returning Ukraine to the Russian fold.