Crisis in Ukraine: Splitting Ukraine could prove the best solution

Crisis in Ukraine: Splitting Ukraine could prove the best solution

The curtain has risen on Ukraine: Act II. The scenery has changed with a first batch of actors hustled off the stage but the basic plot line remains: Ukraine is up for sale, but who will be the purchaser?

The drama continues — but the audience is even more confused. Initially when the “play” opened, there was watchful anticipation by the EU and U.S. audience as they attempted to sort out the plotline. Was Yanukovych a good bad guy or a bad good guy in control of Ukraine? Had he imprisoned the lovely princess (Yulia Tymoshenko) or was she just another kleptocrat with movie-star looks? Should the audience cheer for Yanukovych as the democratically-elected president or root for the crowds in Independence Square seeking his ouster with claims of free speech, assembly and association?

Finally Yanukovych resorted to desperate measures. Riot police and snipers killed upwards of 80 protesters. No more semi-tolerant half-measures. It was not massacre on the level of Cairo’s Tahir Square, but these were Europeans that were being killed in Independence Square. The audience was not amused and, consequently, the West cheered when Yanukovych decamped for Russia itself — a move that transmuted him from a Soviet satrap to a Putin puppet. His government collapsed with various new leaders claiming power, issuing arrest warrants for Yanukovych, and proclaiming “early” but unspecified presidential elections.

And the lovely princess was released from durance vile, but was instantly rejected as “no Joan d’Arc,” as she politely demured that she has no leadership aspirations. (A smart short-term move as she needs to address medical problems and can be held in reserve for the republic.)

But with secondary players thrust aside, the much-bruited about main actor — Vladimir Putin’s Russia — has bullied its way onto the stage with Russian troops seizing airfields in Crimea.

So now the audience also becomes a major player in this stagecraft. As is the case for some modern dramas, there are multiple possible conclusions — and the audience can choose.

Acquiesce in the creation of an “East” and “West” Ukraine: as we have accepted North and South Korea, a divided Cyprus, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This solution could be bureaucratic and politically neat. One can hypothesize a UN-administered division of the country ultimately endorsed by an internationally-monitored “national” referendum. It would satisfy the demographic realities with the heavily Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine free to associate intimately with Russia and Putin assured of control over his Crimea Sevastapol Black Sea naval base. The Ukrainian-speaking western portion of the country would become an EU and perhaps NATO member, propped up with Western financial assistance. A bloodless win/win for West and Putin.

Strong resistance to any Ukraine division: The EU/West must assume Putin is bluffing so far as direct, heavy military intervention beyond the Crimea is concerned. Although Russia intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008, effectively detaching Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Ukraine is a far larger challenge. Perhaps Putin would be satisfied with a de facto political division, leaving Ukraine intact but implicit control of the East to Russian sympathizers. Perhaps Ukraine could even cede the Black Sea naval base area to Russia comparable to the status of Kaliningrad, which remains part of Russia despite being surrounded by Poland, Lithuania and the Black Sea. As a push-back for the Russian invasion, the EU/U.S. could institute strong economic and bureaucratic sanctions (including cancelling the upcoming G8 meeting in Sochi) to prompt a return to the status quo as well as the ritualized yammer/yammer UN resolutions.

Let it just play out. Chaos and confusion remain the hallmarks of the scenario. Trying to pick a winner is akin to choosing a favorite feline in the midst of a cat pack fight. We need to see how Ukraine’s governing structure will coalesce; whether it can exert authority over Eastern Ukraine; whether its armed forces will resist the Russian military if it pushes further; whether IMF/EU will proffer loans. Some flaccid notes of protest at the UN will suffice for near term. And Canada could open its borders to Ukranian refugees.

More than anything else, Ukraine needs strong Western economic commitment. It may be the equivalent to throwing euros down rat holes, but Ukraine is in desperate financial straits. The figures bruited about — upwards of $35 billion — are daunting, but the prize is enormous.

Ultimately, the audience must decide whether “the game is worth the candle.” Does the West, collectively, have the will to tell Putin, “neyt”?

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.