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Europe’s Ukrainian Test

MADRID – Powerful images have been pouring out of Ukraine lately: Kyiv’s Maidan protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, withering police attacks, and sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko emerging from prison to address her countrymen in a broken voice. And now Russian troops in the streets of Crimea’s cities.

At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous struggle to topple a rotten political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

With the Russian Duma’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian military forces in Ukraine (not restricted to Crimea), the mirage that Yanukovych’s ouster signal the start a new era, in which Ukraine moves inexorably away from Russia and into the European democratic fold, has now evaporated. Confronted with a reality that they should have foreseen, Europe’s leaders must recognize that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting geopolitical forces.

For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its history of occupation by competing foreign powers. In the seventeenth century, the struggle among the Cossacks, Russia, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. While the division was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, its legacy has remained.