Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit lately. What began as a series of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych following his decision not to sign a trade deal with the European Union quickly escalated. Eventually, Yanukovych fled the country (or left orderly, depending on who you ask) and was removed from office by an act of parliament. The parliamentary chairman, Oleksandr Turchynov, became the acting president in charge of an interim government.
Within a few days, we all started hearing the word “Crimea” a lot as this semi-autonomous section of Ukraine became the center of an ever intensifying standoff between the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and other foreign countries such as the United States. The rhetoric seems to get more severe by the day, Putin has received permission from his parliament to take military action in Ukraine to protect “Russian interests” (in addition to the apparent Russian military action already taken in Crimea), the Crimean parliament has voted to become part of Russia and put the issue to a public vote, and the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a proper response.
This has all the makings of an interesting story, but I have held off on writing about it up to this point because I have done several posts involving Russia recently (largely due to the Olympics in Sochi) and I also was not sure that I had much to add to the conversation beyond what has been said on all forms of news media in the past few weeks. However, I have finally come up with something that I think will help to explain the situation in Ukraine a bit better without simply repeating what has already been said.
One of my favorite ways to analyze international relations is by examining maps, as geography is key to understanding global politics. The way that territory has been divided up, both in the past and today, sheds a great deal of light on the motivations, grievances, and concerns driving decision making by different groups. Here is what Robert Kaplan had to say about the importance of the map in international politics in his book The Revenge of Geography:
The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map. Thus, in times of upheaval maps rise in importance. With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map, though not determinitive, is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next. (Introduction, xviii)
If you give me a few minutes of your time and look over the following maps, I can guarantee you that not only will you be able to better understand what is happening in Ukraine, but you may even be able to impress your friends with bits of trivia that appear to be the product of years of education, or at least a fair amount of time spent on Wikipedia.
The word “Russia” has its origins with the Rus’ tribe, the descendants of Norse/Scandinavian peoples who migrated across the Baltic Sea and into Eastern Europe a little less than 1,000 years ago. The most prominent branch of the Rus’ tribe was the one that set up a kingdom for itself with the city of Kiev as its capital. (Kiev is the currently the capital of the independent country of Ukraine.)
The map above shows the areas ruled by the Kievan Rus’, as they came to be called, during part of the 13th century. As you may have noticed, their territory covers most of modern Ukraine and a small section of modern Russia. The city of Moscow is not even labeled on the map, because it only became a major metropolis later in history, and it was not being ruled by the Kievan Rus’ at this time.
Notice the words “Golden Horde” in large print to the east: that is the land that had by this point fallen under the influence of the invading Mongol Empire. For hundreds of years, the descendants of Gengis Khan exercised a varying degree of authority over most of what is now Russia. Even if there were local rulers, they were subservient to the Mongols. The Mongol influence helped to prevent the Rus’ kingdoms from spreading to the east at this point in history.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the 17th century. The Rus’ people had now lent their name to the Russian empire, which was both strengthening and expanding. (As a reference, this map shows the situation that existed less than 50 years after the reign of Czar Ivan “the Terrible”.) The map shows the outlines of several modern Eastern European nations, with the colored layers representing kingdoms that existed in 1619.
The Kingdom of Poland is in bright pink and covers most of what is now Ukraine. (Notably, as in the previous map, the peninsula of Crimea, which can be seen jutting out into the Black Sea, is not part of the same political entity as the rest of modern Ukraine.) The Grand Duchy of Lithuania is in purple, and it should be mentioned that the light pink area labeled “Rus.” was part of Prussia and not Russia.
This map is taken from nearly the same period as the previous one and shows just what was going on in modern Crimea. Rather than being part of the Kingdom of Poland, Russian Empire, or even the Ottoman Empire, there was a separate Crimean Khanate that dominated not only the Crimean peninsula, but also parts of modern southeastern Ukraine and modern Russia. The Crimean Khanate was home to the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde that had dominated for so long in the area that became Russia. This area was under the protection of the Ottoman Empire until it was eventually annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783.
During the Soviet period, the Crimean Tatars suffered from government policies that led to mass famine and a series of deportations. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in World War II, some of the Crimean Tatars fought alongside them. This later gave Joseph Stalin’s government the opportunity to label the entire ethnicity as traitors and remove all that was left of them from Crimea. Some Tatars have managed to migrate back to the area over the years, and they currently make up an important minority population in Crimea – one that is not very favorable to Russia. (Read this article for more information about the Crimean Tatars.)
In this map, you can see how the territory making up present day Ukraine was gradually pieced together and designated as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The land taken from Poland and given to Ukraine in 1939 was originally part of the Soviet invasion of that country. (Remember that Germany and the Soviet Union were originally allied and invaded Poland from east and west. It was only later that Hitler turned against Stalin and they became enemies.)
In the Allied negotiations that followed WWII, Russia managed to keep this part of Poland for Ukraine: there was not a lot that the U.S. could do about it, since the Soviets by that time occupied all of Eastern Europe. To make up for Poland losing this territory (which included a mix of ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Poles), a substantial chunk of eastern Germany was given to them instead. Nobody felt too bad for the Germans, and thus there was not much criticism of this move. (A good discussion of this chain of events can be found in the excellent book Savage Continent by Keith Lowe.)
Notice how Crimea is colored in purple. The map legend shows that this means that this territory had been part of the Russian S.S.R. (Soviet Socialist Republic), but it was given to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1954. This decision probably did not seem like a big deal to the officials in Moscow, because they were all part of one big happy Soviet Union family. However, as we are all seeing today, this move ended up having big implications for the future.
I have included this map so that you can see just where the Ukrainian S.S.R. was within the Soviet Union (#2). All of the numbered regions were part of the Soviet Union proper. Several of the areas in Eastern Europe are not colored, and yet they were certainly within the Soviet sphere. However, they were not actually a part of the Soviet Union itself. They were run by Communist governments, many of which the U.S.S.R. had helped to set up following WWII and continued to influence. Even so, the fact that Ukraine was actually part of the Soviet Union proper shows that its historical connection to Moscow has been even closer.
This map shows Europe as it existed during the Cold War, divided between American allies and Soviet allies. In blue are the members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which existed largely to protect Western Europe (and the Greek and Turkish peninsulas) from Soviet influence or even invasion. The red areas were part of the Warsaw Pact, the security alliance headed by the Soviet Union in direct opposition to NATO. The dividing line is very nearly where the Soviet and American/British/Canadian/French et. al. forces stopped at the end of WWII. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, this line of Western influence started to creep closer and closer to Russia.
This map shows all of the current NATO countries color coded by the year that they joined. East Germany was the first former area under the Soviet sphere to join NATO when Germany was reunified. In 1999, NATO incorporated Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. By 2004, there was a solid line of NATO countries stretching from the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) down to Turkey. Now, even areas that had been part of the Soviet Union proper (the Baltic states) are part of NATO.
This eastward momentum has been viewed with great suspicion by Russia and is a sign that countries that formerly looked to Moscow are now looking West. Military cooperation by all of these NATO countries can be seen from Russia’s point of view as an increasingly powerful competitor moving ever closer, with Belarus and Ukraine remaining as the only buffer zone.
Perhaps the most important union taking part in Europe has not been NATO at all, but rather the European Union, which has knit the economies of these countries together in a way that guarantees that they will always have common interests. (Witness the sovereign debt crisis that has taken place there over the past few years, with the economic prosperity of every EU country depending on even the smallest member of that alliance.) The EU has moved eastward at almost the same pace as NATO, with the major difference being that Turkey is not a member.
Once again, Belarus and Ukraine are the only buffer zones between Russia and its competitors. Belarus has shown few signs of leaning toward the West. Its government is autocratic and its freedoms are not on par with the rest of Europe. However, Ukraine is a different story. Despite a host of problems - corruption, debt, etc. – it has displayed a much more independent spirit, or at least a spirit that is not as dependent on Russia.
The “Orange Revolution” in late 2004 and early 2005 (one of a series of “color revolutions” in former Soviet states during the first decade of this century) ushered in a reform-minded government in Kiev, though it had difficulties and ultimately lost its position of power to the man who was until a couple weeks ago president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and his party allies. Yanukovych was much more oriented toward Russia, while the “Orange” politicians preferred greater collaboration with Europe. When Putin ran for the Russian presidency again in 2012, among his supporters’ chants were “No to Orangists!”.
Now we get into the nitty gritty of Ukraine itself. The current standoff has been portrayed as a battle of East vs. West, and to a large extent that is true. Those in western Ukraine are most supportive of the new interim government in Kiev, while those in eastern Ukraine are more wary. Why is this? The map above clearly shows one reason why those in the East might prefer the status quo: they are doing a lot better than their neighbors to the west.
You can see that the average annual salary for a person in the eastern part of Ukraine (which is closer to Russia and more rich in certain resources) is significantly higher than someone in western Ukraine, with the important exception of the region in which the capital city of Kiev is located (#289). The numbers used for the map were taken from 2010 statistics, the first year of Yanukovych’s presidency; but data from 2013 shows that the situation has not changed much. A person’s financial situation is one of the key elements for stability and satisfaction. Thus, the better a person is doing financially, the less likely they are to prefer a political upheaval of the kind that has occurred in Ukraine recently.
Ukraine is also split between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. The map above shows what percentage of people in each of the oblasts is a native speaker of Ukrainian. The numbers are much higher in the North and West. Particularly interesting is the fact that only about 10% of people in Crimea speak Ukrainian as their first language.
This map appears to be a photo negative of the previous one. It shows the percentage of residents in each oblast who are native Russian speakers. The numbers are highest in the far eastern corner of the mainland and on the Crimean peninsula. What language a person speaks has a huge impact on how they perceive the world. Native Russian speakers are more likely to go to Russian media sources for their news, watch Russian films, do more business with Russia, take more trips to Russia, have more relatives in Russia, etc.
The close geographical proximity only reinforces this division. The Russian speakers are likely to want a close alliance with Russia because they live right next door. The Ukrainian speakers, on the other hand, are closer to the rest of Europe, so they naturally see European integration as a more valuable prospect. If you go back to that map of Ukraine’s 20th century evolution, you can see that the parts of Ukraine farthest to the West were parts of other European countries less than a century ago, a fact that could also lead to more positive feelings toward the rest of Europe and more negative feelings toward Russia.
This map reveals the political impact of those regional differences. It shows the results of Ukraine’s 2012 national elections. Purple represents the Fatherland Party, which as you might expect from the name emphasizes Ukrainian nationalism. This party was the largest one within the bloc formerly led by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to jail time for abuse of power (charges that many in the West deemed to be spurious) while Yanukovych was president. She was freed last month as Yanukovych’s presidency fell apart. The Fatherland Party has also pushed for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union.
The blue sections on the map voted for the Party of the Regions, which strives to defend the rights of ethnic Russians within Ukraine (including a pro-Russian foreign policy) and is affiliated with the recently ousted president. The divide between East and West, Ukrainian and Russian speakers, pro-European and pro-Russian foreign policy stances, and even economic status could not be more stark. This is why we are seeing the political unrest within Ukraine today, it is why Russia is seeking to intervene (so as not to lose its influence, its buffer state, or its reputation), and it is why the U.S. is strongly supporting the protesters and the new government in Kiev.
But I must still show you one more map…
As there is a possibility of Russian military action in Ukraine, the physical terrain of the country becomes increasingly important. Could the Russian military really roll over Ukraine without facing much resistance? Certainly, the Russian military is much more powerful than the Ukrainian military, but when you invade a country, you are never just facing that country’s armed forces: you also have to contend with the local population and the local geography.
As for the population, you can be sure that all but the most pro-Russian Ukrainians will not like to see Russian tanks rolling into their towns. The reception granted to the apparently Russian troops occupying sites in Crimea has not been particularly hostile, perhaps partially because Russian forces have been stationed there all along (though not in the same locations), but in the main part of Ukraine, I think Russia forces would come across a very different situation as they moved further west. The population there is not friendly to them and would likely mount a guerrilla campaign against them.
When it comes to the question of terrain, there are four major kinds of natural barriers in the world: 1) water, 2) mountains, 3) deserts, and 4) jungles/forests. (Some may suggest zombies are a fifth, but everyone knows you can take them out with a quick blow to the head.) Simply by glancing at the map above, two such barriers become relatively obvious. The first is the Dnieper River, which cuts Ukraine nearly in half and on which the capital city of Kiev sits. (The Dnieper also served as the dividing line between German and Soviet forces at one point during WWII.) The second are the Carpathian Mountains which cut through western Ukraine. Even in this day and age, moving ground troops over either of these obstacles would be a difficult task: certainly not impossible, but difficult.
Because of the cultural divide (and, I would add, the geographic divide) within Ukraine, it does not seem likely that Russia would attempt to take over the entire country: the benefits are small and the risks are great. What is more likely is that Russia could attempt to forcibly annex parts of eastern Ukraine with large ethnic Russian populations that are opposed to the new government in Kiev. (Wikipedia user RavilAshirov has already taken the liberty of modifying the official map of Ukraine on its Wikipedia page to this one, titled “Ukraine 2014!”. It was quickly changed back by the ever alert Wikipedia “police”.) Pushing west of the Dnieper River seems like a fool’s errand for Russia, and the government surely knows this. I could only envision them attempting to pick off the portions of the country that are the most inclined toward Moscow to begin with.
The government in Ukraine cannot stand idly by and allow this to happen, as that would be an admission that its borders are not valid and its would set a dangerous precedent for the future. However, if the Russian military does come for that land, there is probably very little the Ukrainian military can do about it without outside assistance. The local population in those areas will be of little help if they are welcoming the Russians as liberators.
Right now, Ukrainian authorities must decide if letting Crimea go would be enough to satisfy Russia’s “concerns”, and if that is a price they are willing to pay. The United States must decide how much it is willing to sacrifice to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. All of the foreign powers involved seem to believe that Ukraine is too important to let go without a fight, but I think that is especially true for Russia. If Ukraine is going to go toward the Europeans, then preserving the eastern section of the country as a pro-Russian region is absolutely essential for Putin and company. (Another advantage of eastern Ukraine: it is responsible for much of the country’s industrial output.)
A lot of people in the U.S. are painting this crisis as a sign of American weakness, and particularly weakness on the part of the Obama administration. While it certainly shows that the much hyped “Russian reset” was a total flop, I do not think Russia’s actions show that Moscow is strong. Rather, they show that it has lost much of its influence in Europe, a continent that has basically said since the fall of the Soviet Union, “We don’t want to buy what you are selling.”
The biggest source of leverage Russia has over Eastern Europe these days is the flow of natural gas through Ukraine and on to the rest of the continent, but if the United States is able to export more energy (a definite possibility) and pipelines continue to bring more energy to Europe by cutting through Turkey, that leverage will definitely shrink. Despite all of the mistakes by the U.S., Russia appears to have lost the game of “soft power” and is having to fall back on old school power politics. It is possible that Putin will win this individual battle, but I think this is a bad sign for Russia’s chances of winning the ultimate war for “hearts and minds”.
I cannot help but see this as a major divergence from where things stood back in, say, the 1960s. In those days, the United States was locked in a worldwide ideological battle with the Soviet Union. There were a lot of countries that did want to buy what Moscow was selling. The CIA was fighting a covert war to counter Soviet influence in its own back yard, Latin America, and the Soviet Union was trying to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. (There is a parallel to be drawn between President Kennedy’s insistence that the U.S. would not tolerate such a security threat on its doorstep and the way that the Russians are thinking now, though I am not claiming that there is an exact moral equivalence.)
Now the situation is somewhat reversed. Soviet-style communist ideology has come up bankrupt, and Russia itself has moved substantially to the right politically. The front line in the battle for global influence between the U.S. and Russia now sits near Moscow rather than Washington, D.C. I am not saying we ought to be celebrating, or that the crisis in Ukraine is not a serious one, or that Russia is in serious decline, or anything of that sort. I am merely pointing out that, even as we lament the impotence of the United States in situations such as this one, we need to realize that things are rarely as one-sided as they appear. I believe the person who has the greatest reason to be concerned about recent events in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin.