A Russian flag flew in front of the City Hall in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday – a tangible sign of pro-Moscow, separatist sentiment that could wreck plans to end the bloodshed that gripped the country last week.
But as Ukraine finds itself at the center of a tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union, would either side allow an east-west split that could trigger a civil war?
The rhetoric has been fierce.
Ukraine's acting leader, Oleksander Turchinov, ominously told the parliament on Tuesday that he would meet law enforcement agencies to discuss the risk of separatism in eastern regions with large Russian-speaking populations.
In response, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the rise of what he called “nationalist and neo-fascist'' sentiment in western Ukraine, according to Reuters. He called on democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to condemn “calls to ban the Russian language, to turn the Russian-speaking population into 'non-citizens' and to restrict freedom of expression.”
Still, Secretary of State John Kerry insists Ukraine’s future is not about “east versus west.”
How divided is Ukraine?
Ukraine is ethnically homogenous, and does not allow dual citizenship. However, there is a clear east-west split in its political and economic outlook.
Wealthy western Ukraine looks toward its European neighbors – especially Poland - and this is where Ukrainian nationalist sentiment is strongest.
In the industrialized east and south, ties are closer to Russia. In some states, most notably Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, Russian is the primary language and the outlook is pro-Russian. Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea naval base – a huge local employer - and almost 60 per cent of the population speaks Russian.
The legacy of the USSR remains strong. “If you ask people in the west, they will say ‘We are Ukrainian.’ In the east, they are more likely to say, ‘We are Soviet,’” said Andy Hunder, director of London’s Ukrainian Institute.
Trade with E.U. countries now exceeds that with Russia, but Russia is Ukraine’s single largest individual trading partner, according to the BBC.
In the Crimean city of Sevastopol, 500 miles south of Kiev, an armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets on Tuesday, according to an Associated Press report.
In these regions, the Euromaidan protesters who forced the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych are viewed not as heroes but as “fascists” who will punish Russian-speakers by denying their freedoms.
"Bandits have come to power," Vyacheslav Tokarev, a 39-year-old construction worker, told the AP at a pro-Russia rally outside Sevastopol’s city hall. "I'm ready to take arms to fight the fascists who have seized power in Kiev."
Moscow’s rhetoric about the rights of Russian-speakers could be part of a plan to encourage some of these regions to quit Ukraine, Voice of America’s Moscow bureau chief James Brooke wrote in a blog. “If the Kremlin tries to engineer Crimea’s secession, it would fit with Russia’s divide and control policy toward its immediate neighbors. In the past, Putin has stated publicly what many Russians think privately: that Ukraine is not a nation.”
Brooke added: “Past Russian leaders have seen Ukraine as an economic colony and as a security buffer zone. It slowed down invaders from Europe. Today, Russia’s navy base in Crimea at Sevastopol projects power into the Black Sea and on to the Mediterranean."
However, some observers believe Ukraine’s divisions have been overstated.
“If you go to the east and west of Ukraine you will find very different cultures, people that have different aspirations, indeed different languages,” said Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. “It is assumed that these two halves are in an irreconcilable conflict between a homogeneous west and a homogeneous west. But that’s a bit like taking Maine and Southern California and saying they are different and therefore the United States will divide into two parts in which the east is all exactly like Maine and the west is all exactly like Southern California.”
In Crimea, for example, almost 60 percent of the population speaks Russian but 25 percent speaks Ukrainian and the remainder is mostly ethnic Tatars, who were deported to central Asia in vast numbers by Stalin and view Moscow with suspicion. Some were also demonstrating outside the City Hall on Wednesday chanting: “We are not Russia.”
“Crimea is a wild card,” explained Motyl. “It’s totally different from the rest of Ukraine. Sevastopol is seen as a hero city by Russians because it resisted the Nazis.”
Does Russia or the E.U. want to divide Ukraine?
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has already called on all sides to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity, echoing a plea from ex-Swedish prime minister turned European diplomat Carl Bildt.
The country is also theoretically protected by a 1994 deal with Russia in which Ukraine handed over all its nuclear defenses to Moscow in exchange for guarantees over its borders.
But although Russia might gain territory if parts of Ukraine were to secede, it would not necessarily be a political victory for Vladimir Putin, observers say.
“For Russia, a split Ukraine would be an admission of defeat because it would mean conceding that not all of Ukraine was under its influence,” said Michael Cecire, associate scholar at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Losing even part of Ukraine would be seen as a retreat. Russia would rather have a united Ukraine over which it could exert economic power and influence."
There is also the matter of Ukraine’s oil and gas infrastructure, which would not easily be divided. “You could not just cut up pipelines overnight,” Cecire said. “There is too much at stake for all sides. A split is not out of the question, but it would be a real last-ditch option.”
So while Russia might make noises about pro-Russian areas of Ukraine, it isn't in Moscow's interests to see the country break apart.
That position was reinforced Tuesday when one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, the influential billionaire Renat Akhmetov, was said to be against federalization or separatism.
Andrei Shyshatskyi, head of the eastern Donetsk province, said he had spoken to Akhmetov about the issue. “I met him and we talked that a peaceful solution must be found,” Shyshatskyi told reporters, according to RIA Novosti. “He was and is against the further use of force escalating as an answer. Ukraine must be one and undivided; there must be no talks about separatism and federalization.”
“If Akhmetov has said Ukraine should remain united, you can be bet that is what will happen,” Motyl said.
Would Putin invade to protect Russians?
Moscow invaded Georgia in 2008 on the pretext of preventing terrorism, and there are echoes in Russia’s description of Kiev’s rulers this week as “fascists.”
“I was in Georgia the week before Russia’s invasion on Aug. 8, 2008,” wrote Voice of America's Brooke. “The parallels between that situation and the current crisis in Ukraine are crystal clear.”
Others are unconvinced that Russia wants a fight.
“It would be a huge risk,” Motyl said. “It would send the wrong message to other states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, that they could be treated the same way. It would also threaten the future of the Russia-centered customs union, which is what Putin was trying to achieve with the economic deal with Ukraine. It would also expose Russia to the threat of more Islamic militant terrorism.”
He added: “It depends if Putin is thinking geopolitically or with his emotions. If the latter, then all bets are off.”
In the meantime, Ukraine seems destined for months of political struggle followed by a possible E.U.-brokered bailout backed by the International Monetary Fund.
But there are signs of optimism in Yanukovych’s departure, according to the Ukrainian Institute's Hunder. “I think people wandering around Yanukovych’s residence represents a sort of cleansing process.
“Look at the determination of people who spent the winter out on the streets for what they believe in. There are real signs that a civil society is being built and that means the old Soviet influence will matter less and less.”