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Is Ukraine in Imminent Danger of Breaking Up? : Diplomacy: The favorite to become president of Crimea wants to reunite with Russia. Intervention by Moscow may no longer be avoidable.

January 30, 1994|Eugene Rumer | Eugene Rumer has written extensively about the former Soviet Union, specializing in political and national-security issues.

MOSCOW — If only Nikita S. Khrushchev hadn't been so generous rewarding Ukraine for its loyalty to Russia.

Forty years ago, the Soviet leader transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. Now, Crimea's predominantly Russian and Russian-speaking residents want to go home again.

The results of today's second round of presidential voting will most likely make that possible, because a Russian secessionist is favored to win the presidency of the autonomous republic. The first round of voting, held two weeks ago, demonstrated the erosion of popular support for Ukrainian independence. A course that will put Ukraine on the path of civil war and open conflict with Russia may be set.

In December, 1991, nearly 55% of Crimean residents voted for Ukraine's independence. This outcome was warmly welcomed by politicians, because the Crimean peninsula's history and politics had easily made it the "most likely to secede" from Ukraine. During perestroika , when Ukraine was inching toward independence from Russia, the Crimean secessionist card was frequently played by various political factions to threaten the Ukrainian independence movement with the possibility of breakup and irredentist claims by Russia. But the '91 vote proved these threats empty, though not dead.

Two years of Ukrainian independence have taken a severe toll on Crimea and radicalized its politics. Nikolay Meshkov, the candidate who would reunite Crimea with Russia, received 38% of the vote in the first round. His chief opponent, who favors continuing union with Ukraine, got only 17%. Another 30% was divided among candidates who support some one form or another of distancing from Kiev.

If Meshkov is elected the first president of Crimea and follows through on his declaration to rejoin Russia, the threat of disintegration of Ukraine will be real and immediate. Even if a more moderate candidate prevails, the elections will have shown that the post-independence political consensus in Ukraine has fallen victim to hyperinflation and tardy reform, as well as to regionalism and nationalism.

U.S. policy-makers face some tough choices if Crimea moves to secede. Kiev has few options other than the use of force to preserve the union--a prospect that would almost certainly lead to escalation and some form of Russian intervention in the conflict. The recently concluded U.S.-Ukrainian-Russian agreement on nuclear weapons deployed in Ukraine would be the first, though least important, victim. More important victims include the pace of Russia's reforms, which is already slow, and chances for the survival of an independent Ukraine.

All this in defense of an illegitimate secessionist movement exploiting opportunities created for it by domestic stagnation in Ukraine.

In responding to such tragic developments, Washington should keep in mind that their reasons are indigenous to Ukraine and that Russia has legitimate interests in the region. It should prepare to reject any secessionist claims in Crimea and reaffirm its commitment to defend Ukraine's territorial integrity. The United States should also convey to Russia its concerns about the situation in Crimea and appeal to Russian policy-makers and political leaders to use their influence--if any--to calm the situation.

The most realistic option, however, may be Russian intervention, as ominous as this may sound. Russia is the party with the most at stake and the one with the power to stop any hostilities. Securing Ukraine's nuclear stockpile would be a top priority.

Such an operation would be better carried out in response to an international mandate, and the United States should not resist giving Russia one. Against the background of total ineptitude and political impotence of the Ukrainian government, Russian intervention would be far preferable to further bloodshed and the total disintegration of Ukraine.

Washington should prepare to reject any secessionist claims in Crimea and reaffirm its commitment to Ukraine.

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