Are We Making Too Much of the East-West Divide in Ukraine?


Credit: E. Arrott/wikimedia

The American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy has a blog post up outlining what he sees as the three outcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin may be considering relating to the ongoing crisis in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea.

McCarthy believes that the first and most preferred outcome Putin may be working towards is "the strongly pro-Russian peninsula remains part of a Ukraine that is effectively subservient to Russia's interests, no matter who is in charge in Kiev."

The second possible outcome Putin may be working towards, McCarthy argues, is that Russian activity in Crimea is viewed as an example of what might happen to eastern Ukraine if Ukrainian officials don't "play ball the Russian way."

McCarthy goes on to say that Putin may be trying to save what he can from Ukraine having come to the conclusion that the situation in Ukraine cannot be resolved in a way that will be beneficial to Russian interests.

At the moment Russia is making it clear that Russian forces are not going to be leaving Crimea any time soon, and has warned Ukrainian forces in Crimea that they face attack if they do not surrender by 03:00 GMT.

McCarthy highlights something interesting, which has been mentioned a lot recently in coverage of the crisis in Ukraine; the east of Ukraine, and its interest to Russia.

Credit: Vasyl` Babych/wikimedia

In the last few days and weeks, some in the media have made much of the supposed political and cultural split in Ukraine, with maps like the one to the right (showing how Ukrainians voted in the 2010 presidential election) being shown as an example of the divisions in Ukraine. 

However, this east-west split in Ukraine that has been recently discussed is perhaps not as simple as it might initially appear to be.

Over at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty Glenn Kates points out that attempts to broadly define eastern Ukraine as culturally distinct from western Ukraine are problematic, and shows that in the areas surrounding the city of Kharkiv, which is located in eastern Ukraine, the majority of people say Ukrainian is their native language. Kates goes on to say that an attempt to split eastern Ukraine from Ukraine would be opposed by many in the east and that polling shows that most Russian speakers in Ukraine feel loyal to Ukraine, not Russia:

Any effort to break eastern Ukraine from Ukraine proper would meet resistance not only from the western half of the country, but from wide swaths of Ukrainians living within those regions (This is a good time to note that past polls have indicated that a majority of Russian-speakers living in the country have also expressed loyalty to Ukraine and not Russia. Also, some people who identify themselves as Ukrainian-speaking may speak Russian in their day-to-day lives).

Credit: Tovel/wikimedia

Map of most common native languages in Ukraine based on 2001 census to the right (Ukrainian in blue, Russian in red).

Over at the Kyiv Post, Ilya Timtchenko points out that maps like the one above from the 2010 presidential election do not reflect the current situation:

The problem is that much of the media's referenced information is coming from the outdated 2010 presidential elections or even from 2004 Orange Revolution data. During the past seven months, the picture has dramatically changed. As for the past month, the harsh division is simply not there anymore.

Most of Ukraine's citizens who represent the nation's cultural and intellectual society have held a view directly opposite to mainstream Western media.

Timtchenko concludes:

The "divided Ukraine" narrative is seductive in its simplicity and disastrous in its ramifications. Sure, it's easier to consume. But it's also wrong—and it contributes to Putin's plan to bring catastrophe to a nation that is struggling for democracy and human rights.

It should be noted that McCarthy does not cite the supposed divisions between east and west Ukraine as a reason why Russia may be using the situation in Crimea as a veiled threat to eastern Ukraine. Of course, given the geographical reality of the Russia-Ukraine border eastern Ukraine is more at risk of Russian aggression than the west.

More from Reason.com on Ukraine here.