Moscow's dangerous game of Ukrainian roulette could backfire

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The Independent Online

Throughout Ukraine's independence, the old colonial master, Russia, has sought to draw it back under its command.

Throughout Ukraine's independence, the old colonial master, Russia, has sought to draw it back under its command.

Moscow's approach to the presidential election was to ensure that whoever became president would firmly bind Ukraine to Russia. To that end, they exploited historic faultlines between the central and western regions, where the Ukrainian language dominates, and the eastern regions, where millions of ethnic Russians live.

Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine before both rounds of the election to endorse the government candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who campaigned for Ukraine's membership of a new Moscow-led bloc called the "Single Economic Zone".

But, after accusations of ballot-rigging, opposition supporters have occupied the capital and other cities.

According to government sources, Russia had offered to crush demonstrators by force and to back it against any international backlash. However, surprised at the scale of support for Mr Yushchenko, Moscow seems to have launched a hastily-prepared "Plan B", which has raised the spectre of separatism.

The opposition believes Russia wants to "Moldovise" Ukraine. In Moldova, Moscow backed Russian-speaking separatists in a short but bloody conflict to break away from the Romanian-speaking majority.

It is unclear if the separatist scenario is just a threat or the first step to break up Ukraine.

Moscow may hope that by portraying Mr Yanukovych as the only man who can keep their country together, Ukrainians will allow him to become president despite massive election fraud.

Separatism would destabilise Ukraine and delay Mr Yushchenko's plan to join the European Union and Nato - an agenda that Moscow fears. But many in eastern Ukraine do not want separatism and this game of Ukrainian roulette could lead to a conflict dangerously close to Russia's borders.

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