Ukraine's history of political division, a product of the country being geographically split between the Russian empire on the east and the Austria-Hungarian empire on the west, helps to explain the split loyalties that gave rise to today's conflict, said Vladimir Drobnjak, Croatia's ambassador to the United Nations.
"It's one of those areas with a turbulent history," he told about 50 students and academics at Adelphi University in Garden City Wednesday during a speech on the expansion of the European Union. "In times of peace, this ethnic, cultural and other diversity enriches the country and it provides it with additional strength. In times of conflict and war this is the curse that haunts you."
Drobnjak said the ousting of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who leaned toward Russia and rejected associating with the European Union, reflects the old "fissures" that saw the western portion of Ukraine leaning toward the expanding EU and the east preferring an alliance with Russia.
Still, Drobnjak said, when thousands of Russian troops began stepping on Ukrainian soil, the former superpower broke international law.
"The charter of the United Nations has been violated," Drobnjak said, adding that it "guarantees no one can violate your territorial integrity and sovereignty. So in the case of Crimea the charter has been violated."
He said the UN Security Council's ambassadors have been consumed by the crisis, uttering the word "de-escalate" every five minutes to try to defuse a potentially explosive situation.
Indeed, Ukraine's new prime minister Thursday will address the UN Security Council, which has the power to authorize the use of force to resolve an international conflict.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will speak as Crimea is set this weekend to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation, a move that Drobnjak said the European Union considers "illegal," a sentiment shared by President Barack Obama.
Drobnjak said the European Union, which developed out of World War II to prevent such conflicts from happening, has blossomed into a force to contend with. The coalition of 28 nations, which as a collective received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, has dissolved borders to facilitate interstate travel, enjoys a common market and almost universally shares a common currency, the euro.
"The European Union turned the European continent, that was a tinderbox and cradle of wars for centuries, into an exporter of peace stability and well-being," Drobnjak said.