Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

An Amicable Divorce

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 25, 2014 --  

The West wants to keep Ukraine together. It may be better to help it fall apart.

Five days after a Ukrainian revolution forced the country's president to flee the capital, talk is now focussed on maintaining the country's unity. The importance of this unity has been expressed not just by the nationalists in Kiev, but by European Union1, the United States2 and even former Soviet President Mikkail Gorbachev.3 America's National Security Advisor Susan Rice went so far as to warn Russia not to intervene militarily.4

In eastern and southern Ukraine, people don't seem to agree. They perceive the revolutionaries as lawless fascists, and would rather join Russia than be ruled by them. On Sunday in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, thousands chanted “Russia! Russia!” during a separatist demonstration.5

Here's an idea: why not just let them go? Better yet: make them go. One of the major problems dogging Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union is the division between the Russified population in the southeast from the more nationalistic Ukrainian-speaking population in the northwest. As the nationalists imposed their provincial language after independence, the most Russified-population dug in, becoming more Russian and nostalgic for the Soviet era than even the Russians themselves. In today's eastern Ukraine, Russian-speaking youths actively defend statues of Lenin while their compatriots with Russian citizenship across the border simply seek visas to leave the country. Clearly, the environment in eastern Ukraine is simply not healthy.

Meanwhile, in the nationalistic northwest, opposition to the Russian-speaking (and largely Soviet-thinking) southeasterners drives nationalists to greater extremes. Ukrainian bad behavior feeds off of itself in a tit for tat manner. The country as oscillated between kleptocratic governments run by nationalistic westerners and kleptocratic governments run by retro-Soviet easterners. Given the evenly divided population, it is unclear who would take charge after post-revolution elections planned for May. If history is any judge, the new government might end up being as pro-Russian as the governments that have sparked two revolutions in the past nine years.

The obvious solution for Ukrainian nationalists is to jettison the easternmost and southernmost provinces, where support for Russia is the strongest. Crimea, for example, has an ethic Russian majority and was only attached to Ukraine in 1954. It remains the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and there is no doubt that Russia would be glad to accept a transfer of the territory.

The eastern Donet Basin is another prime area to drop. It's the home region of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, and a heavily populated rustbelt of former Soviet heavy industry along the border of Russia. The majority of the population speaks Russian, and might choose to join Russia if the country would have it. But given the region's problems, it is unclear whether the Russians would even be interested.

But even if Russia doesn't want the territory, there's no saying that Ukraine has to keep it. The country could encourage the region to declare its independence, or even declare its own independence from the region. Other retro-Soviet micro states exist in the area, like Transnestria on Ukraine's eastern border, and Abkhazia just to the southeast.

Or how about an even bigger division of the country? Consider that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were untied as Czechoslovakia until they settled on an amicable divorce in 1993. A similar arrangement could sever the entire southeastern half of Ukraine. If properly managed, this could be a relatively good thing. Current residents of Ukraine could be given the right to reside in both successor states, allowing them to vote with their feet on where they choose to live.

While the territorial ambitions of Ukrainian nationalists would probably cause them to oppose these ideas, it is the West that is its biggest obstacle. Established countries despise changing borders and secessionist movements because they fear it will encourage more of the same in places like Scotland and Quebec. Nevertheless, future acts of pro-Russian Ukrainians and/or the Russian government may force Western powers and Ukrainian nationalists to accept this choice. However much they may oppose an amicable divorce, it is certainly preferable to a violent and bloody conflict.

Related Web Columns:

Democracy's Key Lesson, December 17, 2013

The Rise of the Rusted Curtain, February 9, 2010

Abandoning Friends, September 22, 2009

Revolution for a Slow Decline, November 23, 2004


1. Wall Street Journal, EU Says Ukraine Must Preserve Its Unity, February 22, 2014

2. Reuters, U.S. Wants Ukraine to Remain Unified, Cautions Russia, February 23, 2013

3. ABC News, AP Interview: Gorbachev Calls for Ukraine Unity, February 24, 2014

4. Reuters, Ibid.

5. The Guardian, Ukraine Crisis Fuels Secession Calls in Pro-Russian South, February 23, 2014