Opinion in Ukraine has split in two over whether the country should sign an Association Agreement offering trade and political links with the EU or move closer to the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Some, such as Roman Travin, a political scientist from the eastern city of Kharkiv, are already calling it a “cold civil war”.

The barricades are back on Kiev’s Independence Square, known as Maidan Square, where an estimated 200,000 gathered on Sunday at a pro-Europe rally to demand the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. US Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, told them: “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

Supporters of Mr Yanukovych held a rival rally nearby at Mariinsky Park, though far fewer people attended. Speakers insisted that they would win the battle for the country’s future.

Yevhan Magda, a political analyst in Kiev, argued that many of the anti-government protesters “speak not for European integration, but against violations of their civil rights by the authorities and security forces.”

An opinion poll on December 2 by the Gorshenin Institute found a similar picture. Some 56% of those surveyed were at Maidan to demand the resignation of the president and the government. Only 28% were there specifically to support the Association Agreement with the EU.

“The signing of the Association Agreement is not a choice between Europe and Russia. This is a question of the viability of the state,” Sergei Kaplin, an MP with the Udar party led by world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko told RBTH. “We are overwhelmed by corruption, our state has a lot of problems. I see the only way to solve them is to adopt the legal standards of European countries.”

A survey by the Ukrainian company Research & Branding Group found that 49% of respondents supported the Maidan protests while 45% were hostile. Opinions were divided on a regional basis. People in western and central Ukraine overwhelmingly supported the demonstrations, by 84% and 66% respectively, while the Russian-speaking east and south of the country were equally strongly against, by 81% and 60%.

Eastern Ukraine is Mr Yanukovych’s electoral heartland but its residents are not taking to the streets in any great numbers to support him. Mr Travin explains: “Yanukovych greatly disappointed his own electorate. Relations with Russia are poor and the quality of life has fallen.”

The pro-EU protesters cannot ignore their compatriots in the industrialised east, however, not least because that region feeds much of the country: Mr Yanukovych’s home region of Donetsk alone provides a quarter of all the government’s revenues. The east worries that its heavy industries will collapse if the government signs the Association Agreement, because Russia is the biggest market for its products and has said that it will impose trade tariffs in response.

The first people to feel the consequences will be “the students from Kiev Maidan who haven’t yet earned a penny”, according to Mykola Zagoruiko, the head of the Donetsk branch of Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Disruption of economic ties with Russia would lead to the closure of several important projects, including joint production of a new cargo aircraft, the An-70, for the Russian air force. Russian politicians have also said Moscow would not initiate any new projects because of security concerns.

“We will not locate any sensitive technologies on its territory or use them. The reason is simple – it would be not EU technologies, but Nato ones,” said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister. “Ukraine has to decide what she wants – a new constitution or marinated sturgeon.”

The “euromaidan” crisis is exacerbating Ukraine’s financial woes. Insurance rates against the risk of default on Ukrainian bonds have risen to the level of world “leaders” such as pre-default Argentina and Venezuela. Yet Mr Yanukovych urgently needs foreign credit to pay debts, including $2bn (£1.2bn) owed to Russia’s Gazprom for gas deliveries.

Ukraine needs to borrow at least $10bn to avoid a default, First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov admitted this month. There are few willing lenders. European politicians were “offended” by Mr Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign the trade deal, while Ukrainian ministers complained that it contained only €610m (£515m) of aid. The International Monetary Fund is demanding drastic welfare cuts in return for support.

For now, only Moscow is offering financial support on the required scale – but on condition that Ukraine rejects the Association Agreement. Mr Yanukovych is to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today and economic aid is expected to be high on the agenda.

But Ukraine’s economic problems are not its greatest challenge. The current state lacks a national idea and its eastern and western parts have a totally different understanding about the country’s future political direction. 

The causes of this division lie deep in history. Independent Ukraine has existed within its present borders only for the past 22 years. The state was formed by the Bolsheviks from different cultural parts. Some had been ruled previously by Russia and others, mostly in the West, had been part of Poland for centuries. The people of these regions have completely different perceptions of national identity and history.

Ukraine’s different leaders understood the dangers of this divide, but could not find any common national idea. So Mr Yanukovych chose what seemed to him to be the easier option, replacing a national idea with the supranational ambition of integrating Ukraine into the EU. Officials presented the idea to voters as a panacea for all the country’s ills, suggesting that European aid would save Ukraine from financial collapse.

Europe encouraged these dreams, but thenit refused to bail out Ukraine a few months before the Association Agreement with the EU was to be signed. Mr Yanukovych backed away from the deal but immediately faced the consequences of his own policy – many Ukrainians felt cheated and took to the streets in protest.

Instead of a national consensus, the social divide in Ukraine has grown ever more visible.