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Political Violence at a Glance: Boarding Up Windows of Opportunity in Ukraine

Author: Andrew Kydd
March 7, 2014

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"Eventually the new regime will consolidate power and increase its ties to the West, possibly joining the EU or even NATO. At that point, intervention would be prohibitively risky and Russia would simply have to live with the loss of Ukraine.…This seems to leave Putin no choice but to intervene now and press his advantage to the point of peaceful partition, if the Ukrainians do not resist, or civil/international war if they do. Windows of opportunity are powerful things. When you combine demonstrated hostility, present weakness and future strength, the incentive to act can be overwhelming."

Is Ukraine destined for partition or even war? Powerful forces are driving the situation in that direction, and it is not clear that there is an alternative that all sides can agree on. In seizing Crimea, Putin has jumped through a window of opportunity. Windows of opportunity combine present temptations with future fears, and generate powerful incentives to act. To board up this window will take concerted action both within Ukraine and internationally.

Ukraine is roughly evenly divided between a nationalist, anti-Russian west and a Russophone pro-Russian east. In 1991, Leonid Kravchuk helped Boris Yeltsin break up the Soviet Union and led Ukraine's first independent government. In 1994 he was defeated by Leonid Kuchma in a presidential election that was decided along regional lines; Kravchuk won the west and Kuchma the east. Kuchma won reelection in 1999 with much broader support, including from the western regions. In the 2004 election, Viktor Yanukovych, who was then prime minister, was declared the winner, but the results were contested. The resulting Orange Revolution brought greater democracy to Ukraine and shifted the balance to the west, but eventually discredited itself with corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. In 2010, Yanukovych ran again with support from the east and this time won a reasonably fair ballot, much to the dismay of the western Ukrainians. Their opposition was galvanized when, under Russian pressure, he walked away from an agreement with the EU, and the Maidan protest movement was born. That movement then succeeded in pushing him from power, shifting control back to western, nationalist Ukrainians. This time, things looked even worse for the eastern Ukrainians. Given their overthrow of an elected leader, the western forces seemed unconstrained by constitutional rules or democratic procedures. Given their immediate move to demote Russian as an official language, their anti-Russian agenda seemed clear as well.

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