In recent years, Ukraine has often been mentioned in the same breath as Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it has joined the list of countries ravaged by civil war or internal conflict. After years of social turmoil and even revolution throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Ukraine looked, to outsiders at least, to be heading down the right path. In 2012, in collaboration with Poland, Ukraine hosted the finals of the UEFA European Football Championships. Tens of millions were spent on developing Ukraine’s sporting and transport infrastructure.
However, since 2012, Ukraine has made global headlines for all the wrong reasons. Violent protests, separatist insurgencies, and foreign invasion have made Ukraine a country where political and social stability seem to be things of the past. This article will discuss the reasons why Ukraine has struggled to maintain a stable political environment following its independence in the early 1990s. History, geography and demography all help explain just how Ukraine came to find itself in this precarious situation. I will examine these factors as well as considering why Ukraine is such an important country when discussing contemporary Russia and its geopolitical ambitions.
- Population – 42,539,010
- Size – 603,500 sq km (including Crimea)
- Capital – Kiev
- Official Language – Ukrainian
- AKA – Україна
Ukraine is a deceptively large country. Discounting Russia, Ukraine is the second largest European country by landmass. Stretched along the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, Ukraine mostly consists of fertile plains and plateaus. The only mountains of note are the Carpathian mountains in the west, which create a natural barrier between Ukraine, Hungary and Romania.
In the north and east, there are no such natural barriers. These plains stretch from central Ukraine all the way to Russia, Belarus and even Kazakhstan. Historically, these flat lands have been home to many different peoples and tribes. Nomadic groups such as the Huns, Tartars, Turks and Mongols all passed through what is now Ukraine on their way to Europe. A lack of natural barriers in the east has made Ukraine a relatively easy target for invasion and subjugation. This only changed when Ukraine was incorporated into what became the Russian Empire, and subsequently the Soviet Union. This altered Ukraine’s position as a peripheral land on the edge of Europe, elevating it to an integral part of a continent-spanning state.
The largest river in Ukraine is the Dnieper, which passes from Russia into Belarus, and then into Ukraine and its capital city, Kiev. From there, the Dnieper makes it way south into the Black Sea. The plains of Ukraine are well watered with many rivers beginning in the Carpathian mountains. This, together with rich and fertile soil, makes Ukraine one of the most fertile regions in the world. During the days of the Soviet Union, Ukraine acted as a breadbasket for much of the communist world. Even today, it remains one of the world’s largest producers of grain.
Modern Ukraine became an independent country with the end of the Soviet Union. At that moment, Ukraine’s many geographical resources were divorced from Moscow’s direct sphere of influence. Whether it be as part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, Ukraine had almost always been an absolutely vital geographic resource in Eastern Europe.
Since the early 1990s, Russia has attempted to retain a degree of influence and control over its smaller neighbour, with varying degrees of success. This shared history with Russia has played a large factor in the development of the current crisis and conflict in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people are members of the East Slavic ethnic group, and are close relations of the Belarusian and Russian peoples. For a long time, the city of Kiev was a centre of East Slavic culture; it was in the lands surrounding Kiev that a Ukrainian identity was first formed. However, for centuries Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire, which was centred around Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and Ukrainians themselves were often referred to as Little Russians. The first real opportunity for independence came in 1917 following the October Revolution in Russia. But following a four-year war of independence, Ukraine was ultimately defeated and its government sent into exile.
Ukrainian is the state language, and is closely related to the Russian and Belarusian languages. However, Russian is also widely spoken as a second language, and is often the dominant language in the southern and eastern regions of the country. This is largely a legacy of the Imperial and Soviet rule of the country, where Russian was the language of government and many ethnic Russians settled in Ukraine. The role of the Russian language in Ukrainian society is a controversial issue. Many Ukrainian nationalists say that the Russian language has no place in an independent Ukraine. However, those ethnic Russians (as well as Ukrainians) who speak Russian as their mother tongue believe that the Russian language should have some form of legal status and protection.
Like many other parts of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine entered a demographic crisis shortly after the collapse of the communist state. Between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, birth-rates plummeted by nearly 50%, and the death-rate climbed significantly. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a decline in the total population of Ukraine. In 1993, the population peaked at around 52 million, but since then has declined to 42 million. However, this figure excludes the recently annexed region of Crimea. Including Crimea, the population of Ukraine in 2016 is roughly 45 million. This is still a very large decline for just over two decades.
The decline of the Ukrainian population is and will continue to be a massive challenge for the Ukrainian government. In addition to low-birth rates, there is the issue of brain drain to contend with, as many people look toward other opportunities in Europe. This issue has been exacerbated since the revolution of 2014 and the violence that has continued since then.
Since 2014, Ukraine has made headlines around the world, but usually headlines pertaining to revolution, violence, and economic turmoil. To fully understand the events that began in Kiev in late 2013, one must first consider the roles that Russia and the European Union (EU) have played in Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union.
Despite Ukraine declaring independence in 1991, Russian influence in the Ukrainian economy and politics remained an issue. To Russia, this seemed a perfectly logical arrangement. For centuries, Ukraine had been an integral part of Russia, so retaining a degree of influence over their smaller neighbour would appear to make geopolitical sense. In the 2000s, some Ukrainian politicians, including former President Yushchenko, attempted to steer Ukraine away from the influence of Moscow, but by 2013, the Presidential Office was occupied by Viktor Yanukovych, who developed friendlier ties with Russia during his term.
In the same year, Ukraine found itself pulled in two separate directions. On one side was the EU, and on the other, Russia. In March 2012, Ukraine and the EU initiated negotiations regarding an agreement between them, known as the Ukraine – European Union Association Agreement. This treaty was designed to set a timeline for closer relations between Ukraine and the rest of the EU. The focus was on two areas: security arrangements and free trade. Ukraine would gain access to the EU market and security apparatus in exchange for internal socio-political and economic reforms. It seemed like a good deal to everyone, except for Russia.
At the time, Russia was Ukraine’s largest trading partner, and saw this agreement as a threat to its political and economic influence in Ukraine. Throughout 2013, Russia pressured Ukraine to abandon the agreement. Ukrainian President Yanukovych found himself in a difficult position; he did not wish to undermine his relationship with Moscow, and he did not want to go through with all of the political reforms that the EU had demanded. Yet he knew how much Ukraine could benefit from closer economic integration with the rest of Europe.
In November 2013, the Ukrainian government decided to suspend talks with the EU over the association agreement. Shortly thereafter Ukraine announced a new economic deal with Moscow, which included a cheaper supply of Russian natural gas and closer ties with Russian-backed CIS Free Trade Area. The government in Kiev had, for whatever reason, decided relations with Russia must come before the EU. This decision likely came as a result of direct pressure of Moscow.
As soon as talks between the EU and Ukraine were suspended, pro-EU and anti-Russian protests took place in opposition to this decision. As 2013 became 2014, these protests intensified and became known as Euromaidan (literally ‘Euro Square’). By February, the level of violence increased and both police and protesters fired live ammunition on the streets of Kiev. In just a few days, more than 100 people were killed in Kiev alone, mostly civilians. Before the end of February, President Yanukovych fled the country and the government offices were occupied by protesters. The Ukrainian political system had collapsed. A new interim government was formed shortly after this, made up of pro-western politicians and officials, and many political prisoners were released. It seemed as though Ukraine had turned a corner.
Vladimir Putin kept a close eye on Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. He and the rest of the Russian government likely failed to foresee the amount of backlash the decision to move away from the EU would cause. Despite the revolution causing significant problems for Russia, it also presented some opportunities.
While the protests that led to the revolution in Kiev were largely united in their anti-Russian and pro-EU sentiment, the same cannot be said for the rest of the country. Certain regions of Ukraine, such as Crimea in the south and the eastern regions bordering Russia, did not see the same levels of unrest following the decision to suspend talks with the EU. In fact, some welcomed closer ties with Russia. A quick look at the above linguistic map of Ukraine helps to explain this difference in opinion. The central and western regions of Ukraine are home to people that overwhelmingly speak Ukrainian as their mother tongue. However, the same is not true in many parts of the east and south, where Russian is widely spoken, and where a large percentage of the population identifies as ethnically Russian.
As the west largely cheered on the revolutionary movement in Kiev, Putin saw the divide within the Ukrainian population, as well as the disarray the Ukrainian government and armed forces found themselves in. Moscow would not allow to Ukraine to walk away from them without consequences. On February 27th masked Russian troops and separatists took over the Supreme Council of Crimea and captured strategic sites across Crimea. This then led to the installation of a pro-Russian government and the declaration of Crimea’s independence. Within two weeks, a referendum was held in Crimea where a vast majority of the population voted in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. With barely a shot fired, Russia had annexed 27,000 sq km (10,425 sq mi) of Ukrainian territory.
The EU, the United States and NATO condemned this annexation, but were powerless to stop it. Ukraine was not part of the European Union or NATO, so Ukraine could neither look to military allies for support nor invoke any kind of mutual defence pact. Furthermore, a crisis was also developing in the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. In these regions, following the revolution in Kiev, pro-Russian protests had broken out. One month after the annexation of Crimea, these same protesters seized control of local government buildings and demanded a referendum similar to Crimea’s. They also demanded amnesty for all protesters and that Russian be declared an official language within Ukraine. If these demands failed to be met, insurgency against the new government and their security forces was threatened by these pro-Russian groups. The new government in Kiev ignored these demands and launched an ‘anti-terror’ operation against Luhansk and Donetsk. Fighting soon broke out, and has continued since.
To date, it is estimated that over 12,000 people have been killed in the fighting, including 2000 civilians. As a consequence of the violence, nearly one million Ukrainians have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring Russia and Poland. It is widely believed that the separatist forces have been supplied by Russia and have many Russian volunteers fighting alongside them. As these regions directly border Russia, and there is little in the way of a geographical barrier between Russia and Ukraine, it is a relatively simple matter for Moscow to supply and support these fighters.
As a consequence of the intervention in Crimea and the subsequent violence in the east, the new Ukrainian government sees Russia as an enemy rather than a partner. The relationship between the two has been irreversibly damaged. Amidst all the chaos and confusion, the question must be asked: Why did Vladimir Putin decide to take this course of action?
For Putin, this was a geopolitical manoeuvre. Geographically, Russia has nearly always found itself in a tough position with little in terms of natural defences or decent ports. Since the late-eighteenth century, Crimea has been a vital part of the Russian naval strategy. The port city of Sevastopol provided the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union with a warm water port and direct access to the Black Sea. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian navy has maintained a presence in Sevastopol under an agreement with the Ukrainian government. Since the Ukrainian revolution rode in on a wave of anti-Russian sentiment, Putin and his government must have been concerned about the stability of Russian access to this critical port. Furthermore, Crimea was traditionally under Russian rule, and was only transferred to Ukraine in the 1950s, when the two countries were joined under the collective banner of the Soviet Union. The decision to annex Crimea was well received by the Russian population, and seen as a justified move. Putin’s popularity soared in the months following the annexation, despite the international community imposing economic sanctions on Russia.
While the decision to annex Crimea can be viewed as a piece of geopolitical opportunism, the supporting of separatist fighters in the eastern regions of Ukraine is a more long-term bet. Despite this decision pushing Ukraine away from Russia, it also ensures that Ukraine will be unable to join the EU or NATO any time soon. Neither will want to allow a country currently engaged in military conflict join them as a partner or ally. One has to assume that even if the EU suggested that Ukraine become a member, violence in the east would soon flare up. While Ukraine’s resources – including its fertile soil, deposits of coal and iron ore, and geopolitical location – cannot now be fully exploited by Russia, Putin has ensured that status of these resources will remain ambiguous. Western investors will be wary so long as fighting continues in the east, and politically speaking, Ukraine will remain a sensitive subject. Furthermore, Putin had repeatedly expressed concerns over the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and through his actions in Ukraine he has most likely halted further expansion towards the borders of Russia.
The economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a response to its meddling in Ukraine have taken a significant toll on the Russian economy. However, Putin remains relatively popular, and his geopolitical goal of ensuring that Ukraine does not join the European Union or NATO has been successful. Overall, one might suggest that Putin has sacrificed his short term economic security for long-term geopolitical gain. It may take years or decades for us to truly understand the long term consequences of these decisions.
The situation in Ukraine is not a unique one. In many ways, it mirrors several other conflicts which developed following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The breakaway region of Transnistria, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the separatist regions of Georgia all reflect the same issues that emerged when the Soviet Union lost power and influence over these areas.
The fact that Putin’s actions in Ukraine surprised so many observers is especially interesting when considering what took place in Georgia less than a decade ago. In 2008, Russian forces directly supported the breakaway region of South Ossetia in its efforts to establish its autonomy. This conflict arose after the then President of Georgia expressed a desire to join NATO. Similarities between the Georgian conflict and the current crisis in Ukraine cannot be overlooked. It is clear that Russia attempts to use these disputes to exert influence and control over the former Soviet republics.
Nevertheless, Ukraine finds itself in a precarious situation; finding a solution won’t be easy. The government in Kiev must surely be seeking closer ties with Europe, NATO and the United States in order to ensure its own security and economic stability. But with that in mind, Ukraine must not overlook the influence Russia has over the situation. If Kiev takes a step too far towards European integration or NATO, Russia may decide to increase tensions in the east and/or Crimea. It is a balancing act between the different parties involved.
Russia will likely seek to maintain the status-quo for the time being, with Moscow making efforts to limit the effects of economic sanctions, while also hoping to negotiate an end to them. If Russia can convince the international community to recognize its sovereignty over Crimea in a fashion that will resolve its economic woes, it may accept a compromise regarding the breakaway regions in the east. Still, the Ukrainian crisis has taught us that Vladimir Putin is anything but predictable.
Beyond foreign policy, Ukraine must also aim to stabilise its demographic crisis. A declining population and brain drain will severely hamper efforts to improve Ukraine’s economic prospects. Reforming the political system and limiting the power of the oligarchs within the economy must be a target of any Ukrainian administration. This will prove a major challenge going forward, with many politicians still having vested interests in the Ukrainian economy.
Surrounding Ukraine are many players, all of whom have their own aims regarding the future of the country. Presently, the Ukrainian government and its people are being pulled in many directions. Let’s hope that in the near future, Ukraine’s considerable resources will cease to be a source of international conflict and begin benefitting the country’s citizens more directly.
- Source for statistics and figures: CIA World Factbook