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In the months since anti-government protesters took to the streets of Kiev, with Russian troops on the ground in Crimea and threatening to move into Ukraine’s eastern regions, somecommentators have argued for partitioning Ukraine. This talk is not only simplistic but also dangerous. Ukraine is indeed a divided country with a contested national identity, but Ukrainians can’t be easily categorized.
As international audiences scramble to understand Ukraine’s complex history, bloggers such as The Washington Post’s Max Fisher have been circulating maps that misleadingly present Ukraine as a country neatly split between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. These maps offer the tantalizing suggestion that all we need to do is split Ukraine in half and many of its problems would fade away, as Sevastopol and Donetsk join Vladimir Putin’s new Eurasian Union while Lviv and Chernivtsi gravitate toward Europe.
But the reality is far more complex. Consider the New York Times map showing the balance of native speakers of the two languages, with Russian speakers concentrated in the east and in Crimea. At first glance, this seems straightforward enough, but the emphasis on native speakers is misleading. According to a 2012 survey, more Ukrainians claim Ukrainian as their native tongue than speak it regularly, while the reverse is true of Russian. While Ukrainian is the preferred language in rural areas and among older Ukrainians, Russian is more commonly spoken in Ukraine’s five largest cities (the sixth largest, Lviv, is one of the few major cities in the country where Ukrainian predominates). The two languages are almost mutually intelligible, and in fact many Ukrainians speak a Russian-Ukrainian creole called Surzhyk rather than choose one or the other. A 2004 survey revealed a country where 38 percent of the population is “Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainian,” 30 percent is “Russian-speaking Ukrainian,” 18 percent is “Russian-speaking Russian” and most of the rest are “ambivalent.”
Even if we simplify matters by putting aside the country’s significant minority groups, which include Muslim Tatars, Jews and Orthodox Christian Armenians, there are really three Ukraines, and they overlap geographically to an extent that would make disentangling them a disaster.
Compressing Ukraine’s history and demographics into a few paragraphs is an impossible task, but let’s give it a try. The westernmost part of the country is where the Ukrainian language predominates, and where the major religion is Ukrainian Greek Catholicism. Various parts of this region have been ruled by Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, whereas Russian rule was unknown in these areas until after the Soviet victory in World War II. This part of the country leans most strongly toward integration with Europe, but it represents only a minority of Ukraine.
A larger portion of the population lives in the eastern part of the country and along the Black Sea coast. These are areas that were controlled for centuries by Turkic-speaking, Muslim Crimean Tatars under the protection of the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the 19th century, these areas were absorbed into the Russian Empire and settled by ethnic Russians, and in the 20th century Stalin subjected the Tatars to ethnic cleansing, though many have since returned. Russian is the dominant language in these areas, and the main religion is Orthodox Christianity led by the patriarch in Moscow.
Ukraine has a choice between the messy, frustrating pluralism of Europe and the chauvinistic nationalism of Russia.
Then there’s the large central part of Ukraine, which includes the capital and largest city, Kiev. This area is home to roughly a third of the country’s population and is where the east-vs.-west model breaks down. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cossack horsemen occupied this region as a buffer between the surrounding empires. The Cossacks have passed into legend as symbols of Ukrainian independence, but under the reign of Catherine the Great they were fully absorbed into Russia, which ruled central Ukraine through the end of the Cold War, apart from a brief spell of independence at the end of World War I. As a result, the population of central Ukraine identifies as Ukrainian, but speaks Russian, adheres to Russian culture and customs and follows the Kiev-based Orthodox Church. Although discussions of Ukraine’s political divisions group the center with the west, it is distinctive in many respects and does not conform to the caricature of western Ukrainian nationalism.
To defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as the United States and its NATO allies are intent on doing, it is not necessary to argue that Ukraine’s borders make perfect sense. These borders were drawn by successive Soviet rulers, and like colonially imposed borders in other parts of the world, they divide some ethnic groups while combining others. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s current borders date back to 1954 in theory and to independence in 1991 in practice. They have the weight of international law behind them, including numerous treaties signed by Russia. This is why Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has alarmed Russia’s neighbors in the former Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan, all of which have Russian-speaking minorities Putin could use to justify intervention.
Thanks to Putin’s foolhardy actions, the United States and Europe are more determined to assist Ukraine’s fragile new government than they might otherwise have been. This assistance is necessary, but it also gives Western countries leverage over the type of government Ukraine will have going forward. This leverage should be gently employed to ensure that Ukraine embraces the full diversity of its regions.
Partition state of mind
Although the now-exiled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was corrupt and his gunning down of protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square despicable, his policy of allowing Ukraine’s regions to choose their own language policies was sensible and should not be reversed. Western Ukrainians are eager to reassert the privileged status of the Ukrainian language, but to do so would quickly alienate large swaths of the country. This strategy would also play right into Putin’s hands. Instead of breaking itself up into ethnically defined fragments, Ukraine has an opportunity to show that multiple languages, religions and ethnicities can continue to coexist peacefully within the same borders.
The alternative is partition. The Crimean parliament has announced its intention to hold a referendum on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, but such a move is unlikely to receive legal recognition; the international community has a strong bias against allowing existing states to break apart (for every successful Czechoslovakia, there’s a disastrous Yugoslavia). We may nonetheless be headed toward de facto partition in which Russia indefinitely occupies Crimea, much as it has done in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2008, and reserves the right to do the same in eastern Ukraine. Putting aside the wide-ranging geopolitical implications, this situation will be intolerable if Ukraine’s new government is to have any hope of success in the years ahead.
It is often said that Ukraine is a borderland between East and West. Another way of looking at it is that Ukraine has a choice between the messy, frustrating pluralism of Europe and the chauvinistic nationalism of Russia. If Ukraine can’t find a way to heal its own internal divisions, it may not end up on the side that most Ukrainians prefer, namely the EU. As for Western advocates of partition, their arguments uncomfortably mirror the ones Putin is using to tear Ukraine apart.
David Klion is a writer and editor focusing on Russia and the former Soviet Union.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.