Will East or West Prevail in Ukraine Crisis?

As the escalating violence in Ukraine elicited deep concern and strong condemnations from across the globe, the country’s embattled president and leaders of the opposition reportedly agreed on a truce to halt the fighting. Whether a temporary truce will hold long enough for serious negotiations to take place is unclear, and there is considerable skepticism as to whether such negotiations will result in an agreement that will bring desperately needed stability to this country of 46 million.

On the surface, the ongoing saga in Ukraine is a battle between angry protesters determined to oust a president they detest, and a leader equally determined to fight until the end.

Just below the surface, the battle being waged is to decide the direction of a deeply divided country. Much of Eastern Ukraine leans towards Russia, while Western Ukraine is eager for closer ties with the European Union. The protests that have ripped the country apart started in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia.

The continuing instability in this large and key European country is raising alarms in Western capitals on both sides of the Atlantic. As EU foreign ministers — from Germany, France and Poland — were heading to Kiev on Thursday to speak with both sides, an emergency meeting of all 28 EU countries was scheduled to take place later in the day in Brussels to consider the possibility of sanctions. As President Obama arrived in Mexico for a visit, he expressed his grave concern and warned of “consequences if people step over the line.”

The nearly 360,000 square miles that constitute contemporary Ukraine include numerous towns that played pivotal roles in Jewish history.

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv— where contemporary protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor’s office, police stations and offices for prosecutors, security officials and the tax agency — is the famous city of Lemberg.

The city of Khmelnitsky — where three people were injured when protesters tried to storm a law enforcement office — is named after the notorious Cossack leader whose hordes massacred tens of thousands of Jews during the pogroms of 1648-1649. For Jews, who prefer to call it by its original name of Prosskurov, this city is known for its proximity to Medzibuzh, where the Baal Shem Tov lived, and where his kever can be found.

At a time of volatility, it isn’t only the lives of protesters that are at risk. There is increasing concern that residents who have not taken any side in this conflict — including members of the dwindling but still substantial Jewish population — can also be caught up in the crossfire.

We echo the outrage expressed by Western governments over the deaths and injuries to civilian protesters, and pray and hope that somehow the two sides find a peaceful way out of this morass.

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