As Ukraine burns, a stark warning from our most authoritative historian of Eastern Europe
By Mark Almond
Having Vitali Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion, playing a starring role in the events in Kiev reinforces that impression.
But the implosion of the Ukrainian state in the last 48 hours is a political earthquake.
Chaos in Kiev could set off a tsunami that will toss Western Europe from its moorings too.
It is a mistake to think we are watching from a safe distance.
Maybe Ukraine is as foreign to the British people today as it was when an obscure crisis on its southern coast in Queen Victoria’s reign became the Crimean War.
But not since the 1850s has this country come so close to colliding with Russia.
Ukraine sits on the fault line dividing Eastern Europe between pro-Western and pro-Russian views. Her people are split over attitudes to the old imperial capital, Moscow.
That divide is now opening up as pro-Russian districts in the East such as Kharkov and Crimea refuse to accept the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych celebrated in Kiev.
Civil war would be a tragedy for Ukraine’s people. But what makes the crisis so dangerous is the international dimension.
Since the collapse of Communism in 1991, the US and its European allies have seen keeping Ukraine independent of Russia as a key result of victory in the Cold War.
For Russians, losing Ukraine was a huge blow.
Ironically, Russian culture and its Orthodox Church were born in Kiev 1,000 years ago.
Moscow is a new capital. The Kremlin has always regarded bases in Ukraine, like its naval hub at Sevastopol, as key to security.
Now Russia’s military presence could be questioned by the revolutionaries swarming through the abandoned government buildings in Kiev.
Nato has never wanted Russia’s forces in the Crimea, but nor does Washington want to see any violent effort to force them out.
Bill Clinton famously declared that keeping Crimea in Ukraine and away from Russia was in America’s national interest.
But he hoped that over time Russia would accept an independent Ukraine and withdraw its fleet.
Today, when ethnic Russians are rallying in Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine, the risk of a clash between radicals on both sides is rising.
IF Ukrainian nationalists, for instance, shoot at Russian soldiers in the south, local civil disorder could drag the Kremlin in as it did five years ago across the Black Sea in Georgia.
Already the West has been sparring with Putin’s Russia over everything from energy prices to gay rights, but a good old-fashioned tug of war over territory is now under way.
This crisis began when Yanukovych backed out of a deal to associate his country with the EU last November.
Putin saw this as a back door to getting Ukraine into Nato and turning a neutral neighbour into a US ally.
Pro-Western Ukrainians hoped that would be the case, confirming the Kremlin’s worst fears.
Given Ukraine’s desperate economic mess, meeting the EU’s requirements was not really an option.
Worse still, Kiev needed billions of dollars to service its huge debt to Western banks. But the West wasn’t willing, or able, to lend any more.
Putin’s huge oil and gas revenues seemed to give Russia the trump card. The Kremlin offered Ukraine a soft loan but on condition it stopped associating with the EU.
This was a red rag to the pro-Western Ukrainians.
But what complicates matters and makes them so dangerous now is that the most militant pro-Western protesters are violently anti-Russian.
Many Ukrainians want to join the EU and Nato – not for reconciliation but to recruit allies against their old enemy.
This combination of a looming Ukrainian default threatening West European banks and a potential conflict with the EU’s major energy supplier, Russia, means that Ukraine’s troubles are not only on our doorstep but threatening to flow across it.
The violence in Kiev and inflammatory rhetoric of the hard core of the Ukrainian demonstrators now met by pro-Russian groups in the East shows that no one has things under control.
Putin had hoped to manipulate events through backing the ousted president, but the West has a problem with its vocal supporters too.
The paramilitaries who toppled Yanukovych pay lip-service to the new European values of integration but they mask loyalty to the older European demons of nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Sadly, Ukraine’s peaceful protesters are being marginalised by the reality that in a revolution, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
When Klitschko tried to persuade them to accept the EU-brokered compromise deal, he was booed off the stage in Kiev.
The West might have hopes that the release of ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will restore her status as the people’s darling that she enjoyed during the Orange Revolution a decade ago.
Her dramatic re-appearance in a wheelchair in front of the crowds fresh from prison recalled her firebrand role back then.
She lashed Yanukovich’s record but also tried to reach out to Ukrainians who feel that the heroes of 2004 wasted their opportunity then.
Timoshenko’s apology for the political class’s poor performance since then might gain her support.
But it was painfully obvious that none of her potential rivals for the presidency from the opposition were on the platform with her.
Worse still her former ally, Viktor Yushchenko who defeated Yanukovich in 2005, is now a bitter enemy.
After all, he was the star witness against her at her trial in 2011. Uniting the opposition will be a tricky task.
The capacity of Ukrainians to flout their Western well-wishers was shown when the protesters ignored that EU-sponsored deal to seize control of Kiev.
The radicals might ignore the West, but the West cannot ignore the consequences of letting them run riot into a conflict with local Russians or the Kremlin itself.
If political and economic chaos leads to civil war in the country lying between Nato and Russia, Yugoslavia’s break-up would seem like a vicarage tea party.
But as disaster looms, there is a glimmer of hope. Russia and the West have a common interest in avoiding a geo-political fight.
Both Moscow and Washington should make it clear they will not tolerate either side causing more violence. Nor will they stand by their self-proclaimed friends if they do.
Otherwise, East and West could find themselves dragged on to the slippery slope of confrontation for causes that are not their own.