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Ukraine divisions prompt warnings of civil war

KIEV, Ukraine — Within hours of the call for reinforcements, they started arriving.

Opponents of Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from western regions flooded into Kiev, dozens of minibuses and cars discharging activists with bulky backpacks near the scene of the latest protests. At least one was armed with a hunting rifle.

"We just came from Lviv," a city about 325 miles from the capital on the border with Poland, said one of them, Volodymyr, who declined to provide any other information about himself. Asked what his plans were, he replied: "We will break Yanukovych's spine."

As the divisions within Ukraine become more indelible, regions are mobilizing like never before. The crises prompted warnings from politicians including Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk that further violence might escalate into the first civil war in Europe since the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Ukraine's security service said Wednesday it started a nationwide "anti-terrorist operation." It cited protesters seizing guns and ammunition in raids on military bases, depots and government buildings, including a seized cache in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk. More than 1,500 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition were taken since Tuesday, it said. That gives the army the right to search, detain, even fire on civilians.

"There is the possibility this could spin out of control into a confrontation amongst Ukrainians," said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "This could add another conflict in Europe."

Months of conflict between the leadership and opponents who favor integration with Europe has deepened a chasm in the former Soviet nation of 45 million people. At least 26 people died and hundreds more were injured in Kiev Tuesday.

The turmoil is also roiling markets in Ukraine, a key transit route for Russian gas. The yield on the government's $1 billion of bonds maturing in June jumped 12 percentage points to a record 35 percent. Shares of Gazprom, which pipes 80 percent of its European shipments through Ukraine, fell 3.6 percent Wednesday, the biggest drop since June.

In the Black Sea region of Crimea, part of Russia until 1954, there are calls for the government in Moscow to intervene, while some in the Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland are seeking more autonomy. Should Yanukovych be forced from power, Russia may encourage Ukrainian regions loyal to it to secede, according to Forbrig.

Georgia fought a war with Russia in 2008 in a failed bid to bring a Russian-backed breakaway region under control and Moldova has a pro-Russian secessionist region, Transnistria. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov Wednesday declined to comment on such a possibility in Ukraine.

The west of Ukraine, where the pipelines carrying Russian gas feed into the European network through the Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian borders, has been increasingly slipping out of Yanukovych's grasp. The regions have been restless since protesters last month occupied several regional administration headquarters and evicted the Kiev-appointed governors.

Lawmakers in the region of Lviv took a step further Wednesday by assuming all power from Yanukovych's government after they expelled Governor Oleh Salo, a former senior police officer.

Protesters also seized the headquarters of the security services in Lviv, a region of 2.5 million people, as well as the main police departments in Ternopil, Khmelnytsky, Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, and the regional governor's office in Zhytomyr, in the central part of the country.

"The split of such a country as Ukraine won't happen without major consequences, not for Russia, not for the EU," said Yuriy Pidlisnyi, an academic and deputy head of the Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland party faction in the Lviv regional parliament. "No one has an interest in such destabilization. It will be worse than Syria, worse than Yugoslavia."

The country's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, whose Metinvest is the largest Ukrainian steelmaker, voiced alarm at the deteriorating situation. He urged in a Feb. 18 email all parties to "work without delay until a solution is found that would take Ukraine out of this deep political crisis." The Donetsk-based company's production units are centered in Ukraine's southern and eastern regions.

While Lviv, a popular tourist destination with its cobblestone streets and centuries-old architecture, had been in opposition hands since last month, the legislature had stopped short of stripping the governor of financial control.

The region, which has an annual budget of 6.41 billion hryvnias ($716 million), is a net contributor to the central government. Like in Scotland and Catalonia, the parliamentary leaders complain about having to hand over all revenue to Kiev and then receive funds in a limited budget.

"The center takes all our money and this centralization makes us very dependent," Jaroslav Kachmaryk, the head of the parliamentary budgetary committee from the nationalist Svoboda party, said in a Feb. 13 interview. "If we don't control our finances, we can't be self-sufficient."

As the threat of the country fragmenting heightens, so does the risk of a split in the security forces.

Unlike the thousands of protesters camped out in central Kiev since Yanukovych backed out of an EU co-operation pact in November, those in Lviv and elsewhere in the west have the support of most local police apart from top commanders, according to observers.

The crackdown ordered by Yanukovych is a "tragic and irreversible decision," said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev. "Western Ukraine may even declare its insubordination. Any attempt to restore order in western Ukraine by force will start a civil war."

In Lutsk, where protesters seized the regional government and stormed the police headquarters, police chief Vasyl Marchyshak declared that his force had gone over to the side of the opposition, Ukrainska Pravda reported Wednesday. In Lutsk, Governor Oleksandr Bashkalenko was captured by activists and handcuffed to a stage in the central square.

In case of an attempt by Yanukovych to declare a state of emergency, there's a threat of entire units of the armed police force in western Ukraine deserting, said Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kiev.

"They will refuse to obey orders and after that they would be free to join the protesters' ranks," he said.

Yanukovych fired army chief Volodymyr Zaman Wednesday and replaced him with the head of the navy without explanation. Ukraine's military, 800,000 strong when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, has been reduced to 182,000 military personnel after two decades of budget cuts.

Historically, the country has been divided dating back to Tsarist times. The east was settled by ethnic Russians, who were also sent to Crimea in the south during Stalin's rule, and the west was part of Polish, Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Western Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 when it invaded Poland.

The country is also divided economically. Aside from Kiev, the 10 richest regions are in the east and south, the five poorest are in the west, according to statistics office data from 2011.

In the east, where factories depend on Russian gas, Kharkiv regional Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin said he wished the Soviet Union had never annexed the west and on Feb. 12 urged "federalization" because the unitary state "has failed."

In Lviv, municipal lawmaker Vasyl Pavlyuk is less guarded than some of his fellow opposition members.

"If they decide to use force to free these buildings and clear out Kiev's Independence Square, then of course people will turn to arms," he said on Feb. 13.
 

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