To fully understand the recent pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine, it’s essential to look into the origins of the conflict. While Putin’s militaristic administration has played a key role in shaping the conflict, much of the ongoing war in Ukraine is a result of Ukraine’s demography. Ukraine is a divided country, split between an ethnically Ukrainian northwest and a Russian-oriented southeast. Historically part of the Russian Empire, many of Ukraine’s eastern and southern provinces have significant Russian populations. While the two groups heavily assimilated over the centuries, lasting cultural, ethnic, and linguistic lines divide the country in two, forming sectarian lines which define the ongoing conflict.
The maps below tell a compelling story about the political and economic background of Ukraine, visually displaying the complex factors behind the Ukrainian conflict. A lot of the important details about the origins of the conflict can be boiled down to these five maps:
1. Ukraine’s political regions
Ukraine is politically divided between nationalist ethnic Ukrainians and a pro-Russian southeast. The two groups commonly vote along ethnic and linguistic lines, battling for control over Ukrainian politics. While Ukraine’s northwest prefers economic and political integration with Europe, her southeast prefers pro-Russian policies, shunning the European Union. As the EU and Russia have battled for influence in Ukraine in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s two distinct political regions have become increasingly divided.
2. Ethno-linguistics of Ukraine
While ethnic Ukrainians dominate northwestern Ukraine, ethnic Russians comprise a sizable minority of the population in the southeast. Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea, historically Russian territory it was gifted to Ukraine by soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, still boasts a Russian majority. While the two populations have close ties and have integrated over the centuries, ethnic lines continue to separate the two groups. It’s unsurprising that Crimea, the province with the highest percentage of ethnic Russians, was the first to be taken over by pro-Russian forces.
3. Ukraine’s native Russian speakers
Due to centuries of cultural assimilation, both the Ukrainian and Russian languages are widely spoken throughout Ukraine. In Ukraine’s southeast, many people speak Russian at home as their first language, tying them culturally and linguistically back to Russia. As a result, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians have close personal ties to their historical Russian homeland, and are interested in pro-Russian policies. The Russian Federation plays to these ties, appealing to Russian cultural and ethnic inclinations to further their control and influence in the region.
4. Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election results
Ukraine votes along strict ethnic and linguistic lines. In the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election, pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych (blue) was carried to victory by ethnic Russian voters in Ukraine’s southeast. Narrowly defeating his pro-European opponent by just 3% of the vote, Yanukovych went on to sign drastic economic and political agreements with Russia, institutionalizing Russian influence in Ukraine. The 2014 Ukrainian revolution, spearheaded by nationalistic Ukrainians from the northwest, sought to overthrow him and limit Russian influence in Ukraine. The conflict between the pro-eastern Russian and pro-western Ukrainian political factions has defined Ukraine in the modern era, leading to the ongoing conflict.
5. Ukrainian dependence on Russian gas
Russian gas flowing through Ukraine has played a huge roll in shaping the conflict. In addition to Russia’s traditional geopolitical interest in the country, lucrative gas pipelines which connect Western Siberia to Western Europe via Ukraine heighten Russian interest in the region. As an export driven economy, Russia is to some degree dependent on securing these economic routes. Luckily for Russia, everyone else is just as dependent on the gas as they are. Despite direct hostilities between the Ukrainian and Russian military and numerous threats about the pipelines, the gas has continued to flow to Western Europe. Russia’s abundant natural gas resources also serve as a geopolitical bargaining chip. Several European leaders have been hesitant about agreeing to strict sanctions on the Russians, afraid that their own economy may be negatively impacted if Russia decides to respond with sanctions of their own.
Bonus – Updated map of Russian control in Southeastern Ukraine
Above is the current situation in Ukraine as of February 12, showing the lines of Ukrainian and Russia control. The southern province of Crimea has already been officially annexed by the Russian Federation. In the east of the country, pro-Russian separatists supplied and backed by regular Russian troops have seized control. While multiple ceasefires have been declared throughout the conflict, fighting continues and the border between the two factions continues to shift. Although an impending February 15th ceasefire agreement negotiated by Western powers and Putin in Minsk may stop the bloodshed, intense fighting continues as both sides try to seize as much territory as possible before the 15th.
As the conflict continues to unfold, the front lines will likely continue to shift. Here is an interactive, constantly updated map which uses official data in addition to geotagged tweets to follow the movements of the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian forces.
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