Is It Time for Ukraine to Split Up?

One expert thinks the country would be better off if it were partitioned.
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As the crisis in Ukraine escalates and becomes increasingly violent, the possibility that the country could break up is again coming to the fore. In a recent article, Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Ukrainian affairs, makes the provocative argument that this might just be the best thing that could happen. I recently spoke to Motyl. Below are excerpts from the interview.

In your recent commentary piece "Should There Be One Ukraine?" you made a rather provocative argument that it might be time for the country to split up. Could you elaborate on that argument?

I'm not arguing necessarily that Ukraine should split up. I am saying, however, that were it to split, were something like that to occur, and especially if those three problematic provinces—the two in the [eastern region of the] Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk, and arguably even the Crimea—were to leave, Ukraine frankly would be better off. Not because there is some kind of instinctive incapacity on the part of Ukraine to be a diverse country, that's precisely one of the points that the article makes—that every country in the world is diverse, it has divisions between east, west, north, south, and so forth. So in that sense Ukraine's vaunted east-west division is not that unusual.

But the fact of the matter is that the Donbas is an economic black hole; it is a drain on Ukraine's resources, it happens to be home to the most retrograde part of the population, not because they are Russians or Russian speakers, but because they are the equivalent of American southerners who supported racism and Jim Crow [laws]. And last but not least it is home to the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, that's where their bases are.

So objectively if one were to imagine Ukraine without these two or three provinces, the economy would automatically improve, the politics would automatically improve, Ukraine would automatically become more democratic, richer, more prosperous, and stable. I also think that despite the fact that members of the Party of Regions or the Yanukovych regime or regional leaders from these areas—with the exception perhaps of Crimea—are constantly threatening to secede, I don't think that they seriously mean it. 

Ukraine's administrative divisions (in German). (Wikimedia Commons)

Why don't they mean it?

Because they know and I know that an independent or a semi-independent Donbas would be a hell hole. It would be an economic mess. It's a rustbelt and the only reason it survives is because it can essentially shake down Kiev and get money for its infrastructure and survival. So they're using this as a cudgel. So my argument is quite simply, that if and when push comes to shove and they decide to use this as a threat again, the democrats if they come to power should call their bluff. "You want to leave, go ahead." I am certain that they won't. But at the same time if they did leave, and this is where the argument gets too subtle by half, I'd say the democrats should say "OK, go. You want to be a third-world country."

But isn't the Donbas region where most of Ukraine's industry and a lot of its capital is based?

Statistically there's been an interesting study on this. You can find this on the Internet and there's a link in the article, which shows exactly which provinces are providing more money into the budget and which provinces are actually a drain on the budget. It's a statistical study done by economists with no particular axes to grind. It shows quite distinctly that Luhansk and Donetsk, the Donbas, are a drain on the budget.

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This is despite the claims made by people in the region who are still very much into this kind of Soviet belief that they feed the entire Soviet Union. This is despite their claims that they are subsidizing Ukraine. That's not true, Ukraine is subsidizing them. Ukraine is also subsidizing many of the western Ukrainian provinces, by the way, but there the subsidies are of smaller magnitude.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, yes, there is industry there and much of it is world class. But it is also a rust belt. Significant portions of the Donbas literally from an economic point of view should be closed down. They are not profit-making and never will be profit-making unless one invests trillions of dollars and those trillions of dollars are simply not forthcoming.

You argue that the secessionist threat being used by Russia and pro-Moscow regions in Ukraine is essentially a bluff. But wouldn't Russia love to have Crimea, for example? And wouldn't a majority in Crimea love to join Russia?

That's the exception to the argument. The half exception. In Crimea, of course, the sentiment of the vast majority of the population is that this is Russian territory, we want out, and we should never have been part of Ukraine. It's a highly nationalistic population. One could even say it's a chauvinist population. It's certainly an intolerant population. It consistently supports integration with Russia, it supports the Party of Regions and the Communists.

I think the problem here isn't the locals. The parties and the locals seem to clearly want this. I think the dilemma is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's. He has to ask himself a very important strategic question. On the one hand, for Putin to absorb Crimea is, frankly, a piece of cake. It wouldn't require any military aggression because the military is already based in Sevastopol in the Black Sea Fleet. All they need to do is leave the base and declare Crimea independent. Piece of cake. The problem is that for Putin this would set an unpleasant and dangerous precedent vis-a-vis his non-Russian neighbors. If Putin goes into Crimea to liberate it, so to speak, or annex it, he would effectively be declaring that Russia has the right to annex Russian-populated territories in the former Soviet Union. Once Russia declares that it has the right to go in and seize territories that are populated by Russians, he is suggesting to all of these countries that they are in potential future danger of an annexation by the Russian Federation. This will undermine his efforts to regather the non-Russian republics [of the former Soviet Union] through the so-called Customs Union and the so-called Eurasian Union. At this point, it is Belarus and Kazakhstan that are on board. Putin has to ask himself the question: Is Crimea worth torpedoing the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union?

The ethnic and political divisions in Ukraine between east and west aren't so neat. In the event that a split does happen, isn't there a risk of an enclave problem—Ukrainians trapped in the east and Russian-speakers trapped in the west?

Absolutely. There are significant numbers of ethnic Ukrainians who continue to speak Ukrainian in the east and in the south. There are significant numbers of passionate Ukrainians, let's call them patriots, who speak Russian and who prefer Russian culture, and who nevertheless are committed to Ukrainian statehood and Ukrainian nationhood. They too happen to be based in parts of the southeast. You have Russians in other parts of the country, even in Lviv, which, by the way, is a very tolerant city where you can hear Russian spoken on the streets. So it would be very messy. And one of the arguments that people make against the secession, or dismemberment, or lopping off of the Donbas is that there would be a significant portion of the local population that wouldn't want to go. These are people who are primarily located outside the biggest industrial centers, namely Luhansk and Donetsk. So much of the countryside or smaller towns are quite Ukrainian. So what do you do with them?

And finally, with the crisis escalating and becoming increasingly violent, do you think Ukraine is heading toward partition?

No, not really. I think the country is headed toward [President Viktor] Yanukovych's collapse though. I'm not sure if it's a matter of days, weeks, or months. But in cracking down he's essentially signed his own death warrant. 


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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