Russia has threatened to support a partitioning of Ukraine if it signs a landmark co-operation agreement with the European Union in two months' time.
Sergei Glazyev, one of Vladimir Putin's top advisers, said that Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority might break up the country in protest at a move that European, Russian and Ukrainian politicians see as a shift away from Moscow's influence. He said that Russia would be legally entitled to support them.
Speaking after a conference in Ukraine, Mr Glazyev nodded when asked if he thought that signing an "association agreement" with Brussels "could lead to the break-up of the Ukrainian state". He compared it to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, both of which split in the 1990s.
Mr Glazyev, an economist whom the Ukrainian Government accuses of waging a "trade war" to coerce it not to sign the agreement, warned that Ukraine would default on its debts, go bankrupt within a year and face social unrest if it puts the EU's deal ahead of membership of a Eurasian customs union of former Soviet states, one of Mr Putin's most cherished PROJECTs.
He warned that Ukraine would lose billions of dollars in trade with Russia and face trade barriers, health and customs inspections on exports and unfavourable gas prices if it picks Europe. Last week the Ukrainian Government formally signed the proposed agreement, which it hopes to finalise at an EU summit in November.
If Ukraine persuades European leaders that it is making progress on electoral and Judicial reforms and on "selective Justice", notably by releasing the Jailed opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, it will become an associate EU member. Polls suggest that most of the population want closer ties with Europe.
The issue dominated two days of talks at the Yalta European Strategy conference in the Crimea, attended by Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton and President Yanukovych of Ukraine.