The Ukraine Story the Media is Missing

Outside Kyiv, the country is fragmenting.

The attention of the world's media is squarely on the denouement of events in Kyiv—whether the protest movement in the Maidan is crushed by force or whether the opposition can force the resignation of the government of Viktor Yanukovych. This focus on the events in the capital, however, ignores much more serious and long-term developments in the rest of the country, where the ultimate fate of Ukraine will be decided.

Many commentators seem to believe that once things are settled in Kyiv, the problem is over. Indeed, some Westerners hope that once Viktor Yanukovych is forced from power, everything will be settled and it will be time to move on to other issues. Unfortunately, the reality is that no matter what happens in Kyiv, significant portions of the country will reject whatever settlement is proffered.

In the western oblasts of Ukraine—the areas of the country which historically were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which were part of interwar Poland, only absorbed into the USSR after World War II, particularly in L'viv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Khmelnitsky—regional assemblies are passing resolutions to take over the executive functions normally exercised by the central government. Interior ministry forces and police are either being disarmed or have indicated they will not obey orders from the Yanukovych government. If the protest movement on the Maidan is dispersed, the western third of the country has more or less indicated that they will not take direction from the Yanukovych administration. He would then be forced to either have to bring in forces to impose central authority, or allow some sort of twilight cohabitation (similar to what happened in Serbia in the mid-1990s when the opposition took control of some cities and regions from Slobodan Milosevic, or what is happening in the Kurdish areas of Syria today, which operate with de facto autonomy from Damascus) as a prelude to more formal negotiations for outright separation. Nearly a century after its destruction by Polish forces, we could easily see the resurrection of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, this time supported by Warsaw and other East European states to act as a buffer from the re-emerging Russian sphere of influence.

If Yanukovych resigns and agrees to hold new elections for both the Rada and the presidency, it is not automatic that pro-Western candidates would prevail in a new ballot. What would happen if south and east Ukraine essentially return the same people to office, for fear that a change in government that shifts to privilege Western Ukrainian interests would end up be detrimental to theirs? A new government could be seated that looks quite similar to the current one—at least in terms of its policies (including maintaining close economic links to Russia and maintaining the status of the Russian language). The problem that has always beset Ukrainian politics is that the West remains outnumbered—in terms of votes—by the south and east. If the latter regions believe that the westerners are attempting to gain by protest what they could not win at the ballot box, then a shift in government does not guarantee renewed political stability. If the triumvirate of the opposition were to take power in Kyiv, would key regions of Ukraine in the east refuse to recognize them as the legitimate government of Ukraine, and in turn begin to agitate for the creation of a separate East Ukrainian state? (Again, Ukrainian history provides a template, the so-called "hetmanate" set up by Pavlo Skoropadsky in 1918).

The interesting wild card in all of this is what happens with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In the past, she found common ground with Yanukovych and also displayed a talent for being able to cut deals with Moscow. Might there be a scenario where Tymoshenko's release from prison could be in the works, facilitating her return to politics, and a good deal of behind-the-scenes politicking and negotiating with the key East Ukrainian oligarchs for creating a "soft landing" whereby Yanukovych's eventual departure from politics could be arranged—but with complete amnesty (and, important for any Ukrainian politician, preservation of his family's assets)—and with Tymoshenko able to do a better job in the diplomatic jiujitsu between Europe and Russia—striking a deal with Putin to modify the terms of the Ukraine-EU deal in ways which are not disadvantageous to Moscow's interests?

What is clear, however, is that all sides in Ukraine need to be able to back away from zero-sum outcomes—and the outside players—including Moscow, Washington, and Brussels—need to do the same.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.