The Ukrainian Crisis, Part II: Borderland

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James D. Hardy, Jr, PhD and Leonard J. Hochberg, PhD

Ukraine is a new manifestation of an old eastern European political phenomenon, the multi-national state.  The old eastern European empires, Austria-Hungary, Tzarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Imperial Germany, had formed before nationalism became the dominant means of self-identification in the nineteenth century.  Germany had a significant Polish population in the east, in Austria no nationality was much more than a quarter of the whole, Russia included a dozen major population groups, and Turks were a distinct minority within the Ottoman Empire.  In 1914, when the war came that would sweep them all away, Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire were suffering from serious political and nationalist stress.

Ukraine, which appeared as an independent state in 1991, keeping its former Soviet boundaries, reproduces the old multi-national pattern in a time of intense and growing national feeling.  It has inherited the Soviet deep ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions.  These combine to produce a rickety state, with divided popular loyalties and strongly irredentist sentiments within the large Russian minority.  The nationalities issues, both ethnic and linguistic that infected the Austrian and Ottoman empires in the nineteenth century plague Ukraine now.

Ukraine is also unfortunate in its geographical location.  A large rectangular wedge of land stretching from Poland to the Don River valley,[1] Ukraine sits solidly across a civilizational boundary.  Samuel P. Huntington in his Summer 1993 article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?”[2] took note of the historic division (going back to Rome) in western culture between the Latin west and the Greek Orthodox east.  Further still, divergence between east and west includes major elements of intellectual development, with the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the west and only their faint echoes in the east.  The divide goes as deep as the alphabet, with Latin script in the west and Cyrillic in the east.  Ukraine is on both sides of this line, pulled simultaneously toward and away from Russia, with the western Ukraine seeking closer ties to Europe and the east suspicious that such ties will dilute Russian culture and identity.[3]  It is not enough that Ukraine is a multi-national state, with all the tensions included therein.  It is also a dual-civilizational state, with its territory straddling the line that Huntington, and others also, think cannot be erased.  Ukraine is shaped by internal tensions and bi-cultural inheritance, caught between the boundaries of civilizations and the demands of ethnicity. 

The Ukrainian far west is more ethnically and religiously diverse, but the Ukrainian far east is where the current problems lie.  Here, ethnic and linguistic Ukraine bumps up against ethnic and linguistic Russia.  Only in the Crimea is there an ethnic majority of Russians, about 60% more or less, but almost everyone in the Crimea speaks Russian.  It is the lingua franca of the peninsula.  Ethnic and linguistic loyalty, combined with the relative poverty and under-development (and in Russia that’s saying something) of the province brought Putin his overwhelming victory in the recent referendum.  There is no reason to doubt the veracity or validity of the results.  The vote was free and fair even by western standards.[4]  It is time to start thinking of the Crimea as part of Russia.  Putin does, and so do the more realistic leaders in Europe and the Ukraine.

Ethnic and linguistic questions now shift to the four provinces along the southeastern Ukrainian border with Russia and along the Sea of Azov.  These provinces include the city of Kharkiv and the Donets Basin.  These are old industrial areas, with mining and manufacturing dating back to Czarist times.  Coal was the original incentive for industrialization, but oil and gas exploration has begun there as well.[5]  The industrial technology is still Soviet era but with Western investment will come modernization.  In these provinces ethnic Russians are a minority, but over the four provinces it is still millions of people.  Russian is also the predominant language of this area, as it is for southern Ukraine all the way west to the Moldovan border.  Economically, ethnically, and culturally, the eastern and southeastern Ukraine is tied to Moscow every bit as much as it is to Kiev.

Still, is that enough to create genuine popular support for annexation to Russia, as was the case in Crimea?  There have been demonstrations in Kharkiv and the Donets calling for unification with Russia, though there seems to be some indication that these were instigated and organized on the Russian side of the border.  Mostly, however, things have been pretty quiet thus far.  Support in the eastern Ukraine for former President Yanukovych and his “party of regions” is clearly not the same as support for becoming Russian.  A vote for Yanukovych is not the same as a vote for Putin.  No surprise there.  Yanukovych is a crook and clown while Putin is a serious, scary, and strategically-minded autocrat.  Putin has not been able to create a bandwagon (yet) for joining Russia.

The absence of local demonstrations affects Putin’s reasons for entering the eastern provinces but it does not affect Putin’s need to control the eastern provinces.  Whether or not they are sufficiently Russian to provide cover for a territorial claim, Putin needs them to dominate the “near abroad.”  He, and most Russians seem with him on this, does not consider Ukraine to be a real and legitimate country, as is Poland, for example.  Like Belarus, Ukraine is part of Russia, cast adrift temporarily when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, but their return to Russia is considered just a matter of time.  The eastern provinces and Crimea should be seen as just a down payment on the inevitable and, from the Russian perspective, appropriate reunion.  Putin’s view is not widely shared in the west but it is probably close to a majority sentiment in the eastern border provinces.

Even if Putin rigs a takeover of the four eastern provinces that still leaves the Crimea geo-strategically isolated.  He still needs a strip of land along the northern shore of the Sea of Azov.  This would involve the annexation of all or part of a southern Ukrainian province that is Russian speaking but is not ethnically Russian.[6]  There could be no excuse here of protecting ethnic Russians.  This annexation would simply be a matter of geo-strategic necessity.  The Crimea would be connected by road to the rest of Russia, an absolute necessity if Putin is going to take the eastern border provinces.  The government of Ukraine, holding the central and west of the country, would hardly facilitate Russian activities in the Crimea.  No, if the eastern provinces are stuffed into Putin’s pockets, there must be a corridor through the oblast of Cherson to the Crimea.

That corridor and the reasons for it bring into focus the fate of the rest of the Ukraine.  The southern provinces along the Black Sea, including the city of Odessa, are all significantly Russian speaking, all the way to the border of Moldova.  Perhaps the eastern provinces are not enough.  Perhaps, in Putin’s estimation, the whole south, and Moldova as well, should reunite with Russia.  Or, perhaps, merely taking the south creates an exposed southern salient, liable to invasion, cultural, economic, as well as military.  Best just to take it all!  And now is the time.  Ukraine is weak, Europe is weaker,[7] and President Obama is weakest of all.  And, Vladimir Putin, unlike Hitler, needs only one round of appeasement.  With Ukraine and Moldova, he would be at the border of NATO.  Putin could then say, and mean it – temporarily – that he had no further western ambitions.  He had already grabbed the border states.[8]

That’s how it goes with borderlands.  Like taffy, they get pulled and stretched in both directions at once.  Ukraine (and Moldova, and the three Baltic states, come to that) are at once the western borderland of Russia and the eastern border states of the European Union.  Which way should Ukraine lean?  Should it be the western economic and cultural threat to Russia or the eastern military threat to Europe and NATO?


[1] Philippe Rekacewicz, Emmanuelle Bournay, and UNEP/GRID-Arendal, for a topographic map of the Ukraine.  Accessed March 28, 2014.

[2] for Huntington’s article.  Accessed March 28, 2014.

[3] For ethnic loyalties and languages spoken in the Ukraine see the following map: Harrison Jacobs, “This Map Explains Why Ukraine is so divided over Russia,” Business Insider, March 3, 2014;  Accessed March 28, 2014.

Suggesting languages as a foundation for potential political loyalties in his map, Adam Taylor offers a simpler visualization of the split in Ukraine’s population in “Ukraine’s Language Divide,” The Washington Post, February 27, 2014;  Now compare the map (above) of the language divide with a map of Russian ethnicity in the Ukraine: “Percent of Ethnic Russians in Ukraine by Region in 2001 Ukrainian Census”;  Maps accessed March 28, 2014.

Here are the relevant maps depicting voting behavior and mass mobilization: for a map of the recent presidential vote depicting regional bases of support for the pro-European and pro-Russian candidates, see Eve Conant, “Ukraine’s East-West Divide,” National Geographic Daily News, January 29, 2014;  For mass protests by region, see Max Fisher, “This is the One Map You Need to Understand Ukraine’s Crisis,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2014;  Maps accessed March 28, 2014.  

Obviously, objective and subjective factors enter into how ethnic markers (physical characteristics, language, religion, etc.) translate into political loyalties.  From a more technical geopolitical perspective, it might be argued that ethnic groups become putative nations when ethnic solidarity is coupled with an assertion of territorial exclusivity (and ultimately sovereignty) or a demand for reunification with a co-nationality across an international border.  This point is elaborated in a compelling fashion for Hungarians and Slovakians by George Friedman and Leonard Hochberg in a grant proposal (Development Plan and Proposal) written in support of the Center for Geopolitical Studies at the Louisiana State University during the 1993/94 academic year.

[4] The presence of troops, manning checkpoints and dressed in uniforms without recognizable insignias or flags, may have led some dissenters in the Crimea to stay home.

[5] Energy Forum Highlights: SWAT Analysis of the Ukrainian Coal Sector, April 20, 2012: “Metal production in Ukraine,” Wikipedia  “Central and Eastern Europe oil and gas GIS data,” Deloitte  Maps accessed March 28, 2014.

[6] At the moment, the ferry to Kerch is the only means of access for Russia to the Crimea; there are plans to build a five-mile bridge crossing the Strait of Kerch.  See the analysis of what the loss of the Crimea means for Ukraine here: Adam Taylor, “A Ukraine without Crimea,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2014: Accessed March 28, 2014.  Thus, parts of the Cherson Oblast would need to be seized along with the four eastern oblasts bordering on Russia: Charkiw, Luhansk, Donets, and Saporischja.  This would complete a land bridge to Crimea.  See oblast maps of Ukraine, “Maps of Ukraine,” Wikimedia Commons  Accessed March 28, 2014.  Compare with “Percent of Ethnic Russians in Ukraine by Region in 2001 Ukrainian Census”;, cited above.

[7] For the relative weakness of the states bordering on Russia, see the map “Open Flanks: Military Strength of Eastern European NATO Member States,” Spiegel OnLine International:  Also of interest is the Russian geographic perspective on Central Europe: “The Russian Perspective,” Spiegel OnLine International  Both accessed March 31, 2014.

[8] Nature, according to the old saw, abhors a vacuum. Geopolitical calculation abhors the ambiguities inherent in a borderland such as the Ukraine.  Why?  From a geopolitical perspective, the Ukraine is technically a “shatterbelt,” that is an area in which ethnic groups, variously self-identified, often engage in intense contests for power.  And greater powers across the international border manipulate that contest to their own ends.