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Originally published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 4:10 PM

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Editorial: A missing bridge in Ukraine’s east-west divide

Old economic and political tensions in Ukraine have violently surfaced as the government in power pulls back from economic ties with Europe.

Seattle Times Editorial

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UKRAINE’S capital city of Kiev ebbs and flows with violence, and the former Soviet republic teeters on the edge of civil war. More than 100 were killed and hundreds were wounded in protests this week, according to the latest news reports.

The United States and European neighbors do not have a lot of options or influence to change the path.

That grim assessment is grounded in the deep economic, political and cultural divisions within the country. Independence in 1991 never stirred any unity of vision.

President Viktor Yanukovych touched off protests last November when he backed away from closer ties to the European Union via an Eastern Partnership initiative.

Other Eastern European countries leapt at the chance for political and economic integration.

Ukraine never strayed from seemingly endless political tensions and corruption scandals, and a growing Russian-style concentration of business ownership and wealth in select hands.

As Yanukovych moved away from the EU, he scooted closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who upped the amount of financial commitments and bond purchases to help bail out Ukraine’s economy.

Scott Radnitz, director of the University of Washington’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, explains the country has basic economic tensions along an east-west divide.

Eastern Ukraine is connected to Russia with a Soviet-style industrialized economy based in steel and coal. Language and cultural connections all look toward Russia.

The western portion of the country is eager to embrace the political and business standards of the EU to promote trade, investment, job creation and visa-free travel.

Radnitz said understanding the current situation is complicated by a fragmented opposition, and incomplete information from both sides about their intentions.

Yanukovych can promise conversations about reforming the Constitution and shuffling key government figures, but he is the same politician who tried to snatch the presidency in 2004. He was forced aside by what became known as the Orange Revolution.

He might not look strong enough for Putin to trust, with so much Russian interest in the energy and industrial issues connected to Eastern Ukraine.

President Obama and European leaders should threaten economic sanctions, but it is not evident how that might slow down an erosion toward civil war.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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