Leading Article: Straining Ukraine to breaking point

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AMONG THE many dangers posed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist leader, is that his example will breed imitators. It is already doing so in the volatile Crimea, where his friend Yuri Meshkov was last night heading for victory in the presidential election. Mr Meshkov wants reunion with Russia and has talked of holding a referendum on the subject on 27 March. He might, therefore, spark off the violent ethnic break-up of Ukraine that was recently predicted in an American intelligence report.

Russians are in a majority in Crimea, and there are nearly 10 million of them in eastern Ukraine, so he can expect strong support. Whereas Russian minorities in successful new states, such as the Baltics, often vote against Moscow, those of Ukraine compare their own economic decline with the lesser troubles of Russia and persuade themselves that they would be better off returning to the relative comfort of the rouble zone.

If they were rational they might have second thoughts after observing the power shift in Moscow, since Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister, is heading for policies similar to those that have brought disaster to Ukraine. But relations between Russia and Ukraine are not rational. Very few Russians on either side of the border can accept the separation of Ukraine. The Russian state had its origins in Kiev in the ninth century and the link has been strong ever since, even during Ukraine's brief intervals of independence between being ruled by others. The hope of reconstructing the shattered trading area of the Soviet Union and regaining access to cheap energy attracts even some Ukrainians. But most have a strong sense of national identity and will prefer to defend their newly won independence and to resist secessionist moves among Russians.

The stage therefore looks set for a tense period, aggravated by the Ukrainian parliament's reluctance to endorse President Kravchuk's decision to sign away the country's nuclear weapons to Russia. Suspicion of Moscow has joined with declining faith in the West to persuade Ukrainians that they must look after their own security.

The tragedy of the situation is that it will look so unnecessary in the eye of history. Ukraine is a large and potentially prosperous country with a population of 52 million, plenty of skills, rich soil, and traditions that could make it a bridge between Russia and the West. One day it will be among Europe's most important states. Its journey to that position should not have to be as rough as it seems likely to be.