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LISBON, Portugal — For many watching on television screens around the world, the bloodbath in Ukraine is disturbing but distant.
Seeing how Western governments placed Ukraine’s simmering crisis on the back burner for months, it’s hard not to recall British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 quote about events in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia: “A quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Europe in 2014 is not the tinderbox it was in the 1930s, and Ukraine on Friday may just have pulled back from the brink of disaster. But here are five possible scenarios that show why the West should nevertheless care about what happens in this not-so-far-away country.
1. Civil war
Ukraine is a country the size of France. Its population is double that of Syria, and more than 10 times the size of Bosnia’s.
If the bloodletting in Kyiv this week turn outs to be the first stage of a civil war, such a conflict has the potential to unleash a conflagration on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II.
The impact on Ukraine’s 45 million people would be tragic. Historic cities like Kyiv, Lviv or Odessa could be left facing the destruction inflicted on Aleppo or Sarajevo. The European Union would have to cope with an unprecedented refugee crisis that would risk undermining traditional democratic parties as far-right groups exploit discontent over such an influx from the east.
That’s supposing such a conflict would be limited to Ukraine. As casualties mount among civilians and pro-Western forces, pressure would grow for international intervention, perhaps along the lines of NATO’s airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo. With Moscow supporting the other side, that would raise the prospect of a direct conflict between Russia and the Western allies.
2. Victory for Yanukovych and Putin
If President Viktor Yanukovych’s ongoing crackdown succeeds in crushing the demonstrators, Ukrainians can expect their country to be sucked back into the Russian orbit. The hoped-for “association agreement” with the European Union setting the country’s limping economy on a Western path would be buried.
Instead Ukraine would likely become part of a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union — along with other authoritarian former-Soviet states like Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The EU’s “eastern partnership” plan to build an arc of Western-style democracies along its borders would be left in tatters. In its place would be a new, Cold War-style division of the continent.
Emboldened by such a success in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin could be expected to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy elsewhere, asserting Moscow’s influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus and even putting pressure on EU and NATO members in the Baltic states and elsewhere in eastern Europe.
A Ukraine locked into a hostile Russian camp could also open EU nations to economic blackmail — given that so many of them depend on Russian oil and gas pumped through Ukrainian pipelines.
A glance at results from the 2010 presidential election that brought Yanukovych to power will show the extent of Ukraine’s divisions. The north and west voted solidly for pro-Western candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now in jail, the south and east supported Yanukovych.
The risk of Ukraine splitting apart is real. Protesters in Lviv — the main city in the west — have already threatened to secede should the Yanukovych regime consolidate its grip in Kyiv. Easterners, encouraged by Russia, could do the same if pro-Western forces gain the upper hand in the capital.
Crimea — a largely Russian-speaking Black Sea region, where the Russian navy maintains a major base — could be a flashpoint.
Russian officials have said Moscow would be prepared to fight to regain it if Ukraine shifts westward. Moscow has history here. It has supported breakaway movements to undermine other westward-leading former Soviet nations like Georgia and Moldova.
In Ukraine, such developments could create dangerous poles of instability on Europe’s southeast flank.
Ukraine’s protesters are not all brave democrats fighting for freedom. Among them are hardline nationalists with xenophobic and anti-semitic leanings.
This week’s bloody clampdown risks further radicalizing demonstrators, pushing more into the hardline camp. That risk will grow if Europe and the United States are perceived to be failing in providing support for the democrats, raising the prospect of moderates becoming marginalized as Ukraine’s conflict polarizes between pro-Russian Yanukovych supporters and radical nationalists.
5. Ukraine resurgent
This week’s violence has seriously damaged hopes that Ukraine can emerge peacefully from the crisis as a democracy that maintains good relations with both Russia and the West.
Any deal that emerges from Friday’s negotiations to get Yanukovych to agreed on the formation of a transitional government, constitutional reform and early elections will be fragile. Few in the opposition trust him and many will find it impossible to work with the man they hold responsible for this week’s death toll. Furthermore, Putin could sink a deal he sees taking Ukraine out of Russia’s grasp.
Yet there remains some hope of a solution — if Putin, Yanukovych and the opposition see that the dangers of confrontation outweigh those of compromise; if Russia and the West agree to jointly help rebuild Ukraine’s weakened economy; and if they allow the country to choose its own path which could enable continued economic ties with both.
Should that happen, a stable and prosperous Ukraine could still become an important partner for Europe and the United States and a bridge between east and west.