This is all pure speculation on my part, and my record on predictions is only marginally better than that of the Detroit Lions with regards to football, but I think that there is a distinct possibility that this might happen.
We have a number of developments going on simultaneously, with Medvedev and Gazprom playing hardball on a $2.1 billion debt and warning of a cutoff of gas if there is no resolution.
Then we have Edward Hugh’s amusingly named essay, “As The Politicians Battle It Out Ukraine’s Economy Tunnels South In Search Of Australia,” (H/T, Paul Krugman Blog for the link) which provides us with the included chart pr0n.*
You see industrial production falling by nearly 25%, and inflation and the central banks both topping 20%.
Simply put, this is an economic meltdown that starts looking like something out of Mad Max.
When you juxtapose this with reports that Russian PM Vladimir Putin Ukrainian PM Yulia Timoshenko are holding talks to resolve the issue, it appears to me that the Ukrainians have very little leverage.
About the only thing that I think that the Ukrainians can offer Russia is the Crimea, which is already primarily a Russian speaking province, and had been a part Russia until Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine in 1954.
I’m not sure whether a “sale” of the Crimea to Russia would involve an actual negotiated transfer of territory. We could see extensions regarding treaty rights for the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, increased autonomy for the region, and perhaps agreements to protect the “heritage” of the province, which would mean that the Russian speaking nature of the the Crimea would be preserved.
In the long run though, a full separation of the Crimea from the Ukraine might be beneficial for both sides. For the Russians, the benefits are obvious, the protection of ethnic Russians and national pride, and for the Ukrainians, it creates a less ethnically diverse state, which means that you will likely have real issues of governance, as opposed to the current paralysis which is driven by the Russian minority being largely disengaged.
*I tend to disagree with Hugh’s thesis that demographic issues are at the root of much of this problem. While the Ukrainian population has fallen by a remarkable 11% since 1992, and with the death rate exceeding the birth rate by over 50%, I do not believe that a growing population is necessary for economic well-being.†
†Case in point what happened in Europe following the Black Death, which had a with a mortality rate of around 50%. There was a marked increase in social mobility and wages for the average worker, largely at the expense of the landholders and other members of the economic elite, despite largely ineffective anti-labor laws that were instituted. The lesson here is that if population falls, the total GDP may fall, it certainly did during the black death, but per capita GDP went up, and if you can pry this out of the hands of the economic elites, life can be better for everyone.