On Oct. 25, a gathering known as the Second European Congress of Subcarpathian Ruthenians was held in the Ukrainian province of Zakarpattia to discuss Ruthenian secession from Ukraine. Hundreds of delegates, several of whom belong to pro-Russian movements in Ukraine, attended the meeting, which was led by Association of Carpathian-Ruthenians Chairman Dmitri Sodor. Sodor is an influential Orthodox priest in the region affiliated with the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate. Sodor, who has been accused of separatist actions and ties to Russia, concluded the conference with a memorandum to restore “the Ruthenian entity” in the form of an independent Ruthenian state during the first quarter of 2009.
The Ruthenians are an eastern Slavic ethnic group indigenous to the Carpathian region of Central Europe. They maintain a distinct language, culture and identity separate from that of the majority in Ukraine, where most Ruthenians live. While statistics vary as to the number of Ruthenians in the wider region, they number from about 1 million to 1.5 million. (Ukraine does not officially deem the Ruthenians a minority, but rather defines them as a subgroup of the Ukrainian ethnicity.) Most of this number are concentrated in Zakarpattia province. As a point of reference, Zakarpattia’s total population stands at only around 1.25 million, meaning the Ruthenian presence and influence there is quite strong.
Coupled with other covert and overt actions Moscow has taken in southern and eastern Ukraine, these latest developments could tear apart Ukraine — an already divided and dysfunctional country. And that suits Russia just fine.
Russia also has pushed the Ruthenians to act in an attempt to destabilize the Ukrainian government. In addition, the Ruthenians spread across a highly strategic swath of land in the Carpathian Mountains, which Russia considers its natural border with the West. This is also territory through which the main trunk lines transporting Russian natural gas pass on their way to Europe (see map underneath).
Russia has the choice of recognizing the group (and thereby drastically escalating tensions with Kiev) or cutting a deal with the Ukrainians to keep the country from splitting apart — perhaps at the expense of returning Ukraine to the Russian fold.
Ukraine’s government in turn at the moment is too shattered and chaotic to handle for example the country’s current financial and economic problems or make any of the reforms needed in its defunct financial, economic, military and energy sectors. However Kiev, is not simply ignoring the Ruthenian — or Russian — moves in its western province.
The Ruthenian ethnic group is not limited to Ukraine, but spills over into Slovakia, Poland and Romania. Were the Ruthenians in Ukraine to obtain independence from Kiev, it is doubtful Ruthenians in neighboring countries would remain idle. And as these countries are EU and NATO members, Ruthenian secession holds strategic importance for the wider region.
Russia’s support of the Ruthenian independence movement is not an isolated incident. When Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in early 2008, Russia warned the West not to recognize the breakaway province on pain of a Russian response in the same vein. But the West ignored Russia’s request, and the Kremlin has since made it a key imperative to offer covert support to myriad independence movements not in line with Western interests. Given their strategic location, the Ruthenians’ move for autonomy makes quite the enticing opportunity for Moscow.
While there is no shortage of ethnic groups with secessionist aspirations, the Ruthenians are perfect for Russia to cultivate for two reasons. First, they would facilitate Russian control over Ukraine, which has become Moscow’s No. 1 target for consolidating Russian influence in its near abroad. Ukraine serves as a strategic buffer for Russia from the West, and 90 percent of Russian energy exports flow through Ukraine on their way to Europe, making it a crucial transshipment hub. In short, Russia simply cannot let Ukraine fall to the West.
Second, promoting Ruthenian independence serves as a tit-for-tat response to Europe and the United States in the wake of Kosovar independence. Ruthenian independence is certainly not in the interest of the EU countries of Slovakia, Poland and Romania. It would sow internal discord in these countries (and therefore in the European Union as a whole) and at the very least distract them from a hawkish, anti-Russian agenda.
The trans-Carpathian homeland of Ukraine’s Ruthenians amplifies the significance of recent developments. Trans-Carpathia is in the westernmost region of Ukraine. So far, Russia has been spreading its influence and asserting control in southern and eastern Ukraine, where there are large swathes of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and/or Russian sympathizers. If Moscow is able to challenge Kiev’s hold in western Ukraine, the only real pro-European stronghold in Ukraine, then Russia effectively will have broken Ukraine geographically.
It is thus no coincidence that gatherings like the one held by Sodor and the Ruthenians are taking place — and probably are set to increase. These delegations have caught the attention of the Ukrainian secret service, which accuses Sodor of compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The secret service wants to track down the origin of of these separatist groups’ funding. (Sodor’s claim that his group receives financing from local businesspeople is in fact dubious.) In reality, the Ruthenians’ financial and organizational support traces back to the Russian intelligence apparatus. Kiev has begun to recognize the threat posed by these actions; the small Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda has called for legal action against the Ruthenian separatists.
The Ruthenians occupy such a strategic location that their secession could effectively scuttle any chance for an already-fractured Ukraine to maintain political unity — letting the country slide further into the Kremlin’s grip.
Conclusion: The Ukraine is shattered internally in nearly every possible way: politically, financially, institutionally, economically, militarily and socially. The global financial crisis is simply showing the problems that have long existed in the country. In the near future, there is no conceivable or apparent way for any force within the country to stabilize it and begin the reforms needed. It will take an outside power to step in — which leads to the larger tussle between the West and Russia over control of one of the most geopolitically critical regions between the two. Russia has far more tools to use to keep Ukraine under its control, but the West has laid a lot of groundwork in order to undermine Moscow, leaving the future of Ukraine completely uncertain. As for Ruthenia, Ukraine’s intelligence services might be planning to round up the ringleaders of the Ruthenian separatists in an attempt to squash their drive for independence.