Hours after opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called for reinforcements to join them in Kiev on Feb. 19, dozens of minibuses and cars began discharging people near the scene of the bloody clashes in which at least 26 people have died in recent days. Many bore bulky backpacks, and at least one carried a hunting rifle. “We just came in from Lviv,” a city about 325 miles west of the capital, said Volodymyr, who declined to provide any more information about himself. Asked what his plans were, he replied, “We will break Yanukovych’s spine.”
As the day ended, Yanukovych said on his website that the government and the opposition had agreed to a truce and to continue talks to stop the bloodshed. Even so, opposition to the president in the western part of the country may be a sign that Ukraine’s problems are becoming more intractable.
On Feb. 19, lawmakers in the region of Lviv, on the border with Poland, ousted their Yanukovych-appointed governor and established a new government, declaring their allegiance to the opposition in Kiev. Protesters have also seized the Lviv headquarters of the national security services, as well as the main police departments in the cities of Ternopil, Khmelnytsky, Lutsk, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Early on Feb. 20 the Lviv regional parliament said on its website that it had reached an agreement with local branches of the police, Security Service, and Interior Troops to secure order—a sign that the security forces in Lviv are siding with the protesters. “We may be witnessing the first hour of a civil war,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told lawmakers in Warsaw after the Lviv uprising.
Earlier on Feb. 19, Yanukovych granted sweeping powers to the army and police. The Russian-backed leader’s Security Service said that it was undertaking a nationwide antiterrorism operation to restore public order and protect state borders and that it had the right to search, detain, and even fire on Ukrainians in the course of the campaign.
The western and central regions of Ukraine favor closer integration with Europe. Loyalty to Moscow is strongest in the south and east. Eastern Ukraine has the bulk of the resources, such as coal and iron ore, and Soviet-inherited industries, while the west relies on agriculture, tourism, and small-scale entrepreneurs. Any internal schism could cause serious problems for Russian state gas exporter Gazprom (GAZP:RM) as well as its European customers, who rely on the company for a quarter of their gas needs. Europe has traditionally received as much as 80 percent of the Gazprom gas via Ukraine. “The split of such a country as Ukraine won’t happen without major consequences” for Russia and the European Union, says Yurii Pidlisnyi, an academic and deputy head of the Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland, party in the Lviv regional parliament. “No one has an interest in such destabilization. It will be worse than Syria, worse than Yugoslavia.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on the possibility of civil war. Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, owner of Metinvest, the largest Ukrainian steelmaker, voiced alarm at the deteriorating situation in a Feb. 18 e-mail to reporters, urging all parties to “work without delay until a solution is found that would take Ukraine out of this deep political crisis.”
Western Ukraine has been slipping out of Yanukovych’s grasp since January, when protesters occupied several regional administration headquarters. The Lviv region, home to 2.5 million people, has an annual budget of 6.41 billion hryvnias ($716 million). It sends more money to the central government from tax collections than it receives in aid. Like their counterparts in Scotland and Catalonia, Lviv parliamentary leaders complain about the imbalance. “The center takes all our money, and this centralization makes us very dependent,” says Jaroslav Kachmaryk, the head of the parliamentary budgetary committee for the nationalist Svoboda party. “If we don’t control our finances, we can’t be self-sufficient.”
Unlike the thousands of protesters who’ve camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square since Yanukovych backed out of a free-trade deal with the EU in November, those in Lviv and elsewhere in the west have the support of most local rank-and-file police. The crackdown ordered by Yanukovych is a “tragic and irreversible decision,” says 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.”