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Two important facts about Ukraine

- August 15, 2014

The following is a guest post from political geographer Ralph S. Clem of Florida International University. 
At this writing, the Ukrainian civil war, or what may actually now be an interstate war between Ukraine and Russia, seems to be approaching an endgame. Combat-ready Russian forces are poised along the Russian-Ukrainian border as pro-Russian separatists (led by Russian citizens) are being driven into increasingly smaller redoubts around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk by Ukrainian government troops and pro-Kiev militias. Nonetheless, the potential for an even wider conflict seems actually to have increased.

As the crisis deepened into the spring of 2014, major news organizations and foreign policy oriented Web sites scrambled to provide readers with the geographic and data tools necessary to understand the increasingly complex and dire situation in Ukraine. Clearly this is a laudable undertaking, and much needed, especially for those in the United States who follow the news but who typically lack historical and geographical knowledge; one survey found that only 16 percent of Americans polled could correctly locate Ukraine on a map.

Thus, the largest country by land area in Europe (west of Russia), went — almost overnight — from terra incognita to a geopolitical five-alarm fire. Put another way, there was a real lack of context within which to make sense of what was happening; for example, in the widely read journal Foreign Affairs, there were exactly zero articles on Ukraine in the year prior to the catalytic European Union summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November of last year (excluding two Web-only entries about the pending E.U. Association Agreement that appeared right before the summit). Things were not much better within academia; I reviewed the table of contents for the three top journals on Russian and Central/East European studies and found 29 scholarly articles on contemporary (i.e., post-Soviet) Russia and only three on Ukraine during 2013.

Unfortunately, it has been the case that some reporting and background information have been misleading regarding basic facts about Ukraine and its population, with the potential to bias public opinion and, at the extreme, policy making. Effective propaganda and “spinning” of incidents by the Russian government and by the Ukrainian side as well have contributed to the problem of misinformation. This is not to say that specific features of what is certainly a very complex and highly dynamic international crisis are by any means clear-cut, but there are some bedrock realities that ought to recognized a priori. As the saying goes: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” Here are two subjects that figure prominently in discussions on the subject of Ukraine.

Ukraine is a sovereign state. In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin made remarks about a purported historical claim that Russia has to large swathes of Ukraine’s territory (the “Novorossiya” fiasco). Although patently false and not deserving of the attention that it received in the media, this episode provides an excellent example of the dangers of ignoring the essential fact of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Just like the other 14 former Soviet republics (including the Russian Federation), Ukraine became a sovereign state when the USSR dissolved in the period 1990-91. Thus, Ukraine has exactly the same right to exist within its extant borders as does Russia. Russia in fact fought two horrifically bloody wars in the North Caucasus to crush secessionist movements there. Ukraine is not part of Russia, nor does Russia have any legitimate claim to any parts of Ukraine, including parts of Ukraine where ethnic Russians or persons speaking the Russian language reside.

Russia recognized Ukraine as an independent state on Dec. 2, 1991. The border between the two countries was formally agreed upon by the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership. In annexing Crimea (marking the first time since the Second World War that a European state seized territory from another state), Russia contravened that treaty, and continues to do so by supporting secessionist forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine and by directing artillery fire into Ukraine from Russian territory.

Ukraine is the land of Ukrainians. In the last census taken in Ukraine (2001), residents of that country were asked about their ethnic identity. Almost 78 percent of those enumerated said that they were Ukrainians. By comparison, ethnic Russians comprise about 81 percent of the Russian Federation’s population. Ethnic Ukrainians were a majority of the population in every one of Ukraine’s 24 current provinces (not including Crimea) and the capital city of Kiev. Owing to the manner in which Ukraine’s population has evolved and its long domination by Imperial Russia and the Soviet regime, there is a substantial ethnic Russian minority in the country (just over 17 percent in 2001) and an appreciable number of ethnic Ukrainians who say that Russian is their primary language (among all ethnic groups, somewhere around 30 percent).

Somehow, however, these two categories have morphed into a category called “Russian Speakers” as the pivotal and problematic group within Ukraine in terms of the need to consider their interests and well being and, at the extreme, a group deserving of “protection” or even annexation by Russia. This has the effect of greatly exaggerating the number of Ukrainian citizens allegedly “at risk” from or hostile to the Kiev government because of their “Russianness,” as compared to the very small minority who have actually taken up arms or even those who are sympathetic to Russian-backed separatists. For example, this map from CNN shows how using “Russian Speakers” creates the illusion that Ukraine’s “Russian” problem is much more widespread than is in fact the case.

Percent of residents with Russian as native language. Source: CNN (http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/02/world/ukraine-divided/)

Ukraine is a large and very diverse country internally, with significant differences from place to place with regards to almost any socioeconomic measure and especially in terms of political preference (for parties and presidential candidates). This need not be a problem in and of itself, if Ukraine had the institutions and civil society needed to bind the disparate regions together sufficiently to make the country viable. However, since 1991 Ukraine has been in a netherworld between Western Europe and Russia and has, without question, squandered every opportunity to establish itself as a sustainable state. If it is to have one more chance at success, its sovereignty and the right of the Ukrainian people to statehood should be a point of departure and not a subject for debate.