The typical distribution of the pro-Western Euro-Ukrainians (Y.T. Block) and pro-Russian Russo-Ukrainians (Party of Regions) based on the election results of 2007.

By Periklis Deligiannis


You can also read this article of mine translated in Russian  by Helena Meteleva, here: Many thanks to Helena.

For many months, we are watching a ongoing confrontation   in the large country of Ukraine, among the so-called Euro-Ukrainians and the Russo-Ukrainians, a confrontation which finally developed to a real war. I will attempt to fathom the ethnological factor of this confrontation, which I always believe to be one of the key factors of such encounters (and a factor always – and wrongly – downgraded by modern analysts). I will not deal with the other parameters of the situation in Ukraine, i.e. the geopolitics on the confrontation between Russia, the EU and the US for the geopolitical influence in Ukraine, the economic parameter about the pipelines of gas and the role of Gazprom, the religious on the effort of the Catholic Church and its “subsidiary” Uniate to expand to Ukraine and the reaction of the Orthodox Church, etc. These parameters have been analyzed in many articles and books worldwide, except maybe the religious one.

The statement of a Russian official in the 90s on the problem between the Western and South-Eastern Ukraine with which I shall deal in this article (a statement characteristic of the Russian troubleshoot on the problem at that time), is already well known: “Sooner or later East Ukraine will return to us. The Western country can go to hell.” But since then it’s been almost 20 years and then the now burgeoning gas issue was not as pressing, nor the influence of the EU in Ukraine so intense.

Ukrainian soldier

An Ukrainian soldier on an armored personnel vehicle.

Turning to the main topic, I need to make some clarifications about the Ukrainian ethnology and who are the Ukrainians. In fact there is no great ethno-linguistic difference between ethnic Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. Kiev (the capital of modern Ukraine) is the cradle of the Russian state and the Russian nation, because the first truly Russian state was formed there and in the same place appeared the ethnic name Rus which was gradually extended to all the East Slavic peoples, who eventually joined to form the Old Russian nation. The Swede and Goth Vikings who in the West are considered to be the founders of the Russian state, founded additionally some other major cities in the Eastern Slavic lands, such as Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, Chernigov and others, but in Kiev the name Rus (Russia, Russians) appeared for the first time.

There is of course the historical problem of the origins of the name Rus, i.e. whether this comes from the Swedish Vikings who undoubtedly sometime became the overlords of Kiev or if it is of indigenous origin, from the Iranian or Slavic peoples who bordered in the Kiev area. This indigenous-origin theory is supported by most Russians and other Eastern European historians today, and for good reasons : the place name Rus existed in the region before the arrival of the Vikings as the name of a river, a territory, and perhaps of an ancient people. But this historical problem is another issue, with which it will deal in a future article.

What I want to emphasize is that the Russians consider Kiev as their metropolis (cradle) and will not leave it so easily to the influence of the EU or the USA, more to the influence of Germany and France (yes, France, because the analysts tend always to degrade rather unduly the leading role of France in modern EU). Additionally, in the territory of Ukraine there are more “ancient Russian” (as the Russians call them) regions and cities, such as Volynia (Volyn), Galicia (a Celtic place name), Chernigov and others. More precisely, the entire Northern Ukraine is “Sacred land” for the Russians. This area is not only the cradle of the Russian nation but also of all the Slavs (see below).
Southern Ukraine, i.e. the old steppe, had not become Slavic until the late 18th cent. Occupied by Iranian and then by Turco-Mongol populations, it was colonized by the Russians rather recently, and the Ukrainian presence there is limited as we shall see below. Thereby the Russians are “historically forced” to keep under their influence the whole of Ukraine, for different reasons the North and the South.

Ethnolingusitic map of Ukraine

In order to understand the small ethno-linguistic difference between Russians and Ukrainians, it is suffice to note that in the 19th century, the dialectical-linguistic “distance” between these two peoples, was about the same or less than that among the Russians of Europe and most of the Siberian Russians. The latter are proper Russians in ethnic consciousness (despite their large intermarriage with the native Siberians, Turks, Mongols and others). Some of the more diverse ethnically Russians are those of the Far East (Primorye, Coastal Region), across Japan, with Vladivostok as their political center, because of their intense intermarriage with native Siberians, mainly Tungus. But this did not prevent them to remain loyal to mother Russia although for a short time after the dissolution of the USSR, their leadership had declared independence. But they quickly withdrawn this declaration because the independence of the so-called “Republic of the Far East” was declared by an elite of high-ranked public service workers of the region due to its economic interests, which was not supported by the common people.
Comparatively, the Ukrainians have some Turanian/Turkic and Polish intermarriage, but these foreign elements of origin are more limited or much more limited than those of the Russians of the Far East and the whole of Siberia, but also than those of the Russians of the Volga and the Caucasus regions. It should be emphasized that the Poles (a limited ethnic “component” of the Western Ukrainians) are also Slavs. In fact, the Ukrainians have more Slavic blood comparing to all Russians and generally to all Slavs, because the racial cradle of the Proto-Slavs (3rd-4th centuries AD) corresponds roughly to the modern North Ukraine and Southeastern Poland. In Ukraine there was no other racial substrate (such as the alien ethnic substrate that existed in all the countries of the other Slavic peoples who were incomers to them) because the region was always inhabited by Slavs.

ukraine divided

Some already hurried to divide Ukraine into two new states with their own flags and national emblems. I think this is a low probability scenario.

The neighboring Belarusians have some Lithuanian and Polish intermarriage, but geopolitically today they do not demonstrate strong trends to recede from Russia. The ‘Belarusian language’ is actually a Russian dialect. Moreover Belarus essentially has given its foreign policy and defense in Russia.
The differences between Russians and Ukrainians are mainly and deeply cultural and religious. The Ukrainians are virtually the Russian frontiersmen (Ukraine in Russian and Ukrainian means “the borderland“) who found themselves for some centuries, especially during the European Renaissance, under Lithuanian and Polish rule. Thus they came into contact with the Western culture and the Roman Catholic Church through the Poles and less through the Lithuanians, in contrast with the Byzantine-Orthodox culture of the other Russians. Although many of them did not abandon their orthodox doctrine, their contact with the Western civilization has changed particularly the orientation of the Western Ukrainians (modern Euro-Ukrainians) permanently to the West, and laid the foundations of their ethnogenesis. In the 18th century, they joined again Russia but they were never again able to fully adapt to the old Russian environment, thereby till the 19th century they were evolved into a new Slavic nation – a development that the Russians already recognized and accepted since the Tsarist era, although of course there were strong reactions against it by nationalists.
The Soviet regime officially recognized the Ukrainian national identity and Stalin declared the independence of Ukraine from the other republics of the USSR, in order to have one more seat in the UN. But this insincere decision of his, forged more the Ukrainian consciousness and autonomy. Hitler tried to make use of the orientation of the Euro-Ukrainians to the West, but with no significant results mainly due to the brutality of his army.

believed to be Russian servicemen(Reuters)
Russian Soldiers  in Crimea (source: Reuters).

Ukraine was a major protagonist in the breakup of the Soviet Union (after the three Baltic republics) but she ‘inherited’ the largest Russian minority than any other state that emerged from the dissolution of the USSR. Only Kazakhstan and Estonia theoretically contained largest Russian minorities but their laws of discrimination against ethnic Russians, greatly reduced their numbers in their territories. However the ‘Russian minority’ in Ukraine has always been the largest in the former USSR except Russia, because in reality it consists half the population.

The statistics of ethnic composition of Ukraine, based on population censuses, may occasional give percentages of the ethnic Russian minority in the range of 17-22 % but these are of very limited importance. Because except the self-determining as “ethnic Russians” there are also the Russian-speaking Ukrainians. As we will see, these two groups are primarily the result of Russian colonization in the old Turco-Mongol (Tatar) territories: the former are mainly descendants of the more recent settlers and the latter originate mainly from the older Russian colonists.

New Russia during Russian Empire(now south Ukraine)

Today’s southern Ukraine was called ‘New Russia’ in 1897 and during the whole 19th and the first half of the 20th century. This is the latest colonized by Russians region, in the old Tatar lands. To the northeast lies ‘Little Russia’ with Kharkiv (Kharkov) and Chernihiv (Chernigov) as its main urban centers, while to the northwest, west of the Dnieper, lies Ukraine proper with Kiev and Lviv as its main centers. The term ‘Little Russia’ (Malorussia) was also used to describe the whole of Ukraine.

The Russian-speaking Ukrainians describe themselves as “Ukrainians” in the censuses, but they rather feel Russians. This national self-determination is not inconsistent: the specific Russian-speakers feel that they are the genuine Ukrainians because according to their point of view, they did not distance themselves from the Russian culture and Orthodoxy. On the other hand, the Western Ukrainians (Ukrainian-speakers) consider also themselves as the genuine Ukrainians. The Russo-Ukrainians (Russian-speakers) consider the Western Ukrainians as alienated due to the influence of the West, while the latter consider the former nothing more than “mere Russians.” In essence, there are two Ukrainian nations which claim genuine ‘Ukrainity’ everyone for itself. The Russian-speakers always stand in with the ethnic Russians of Ukraine and together they constitute about half the population of the country (including Crimea which is no longer part of it). The Russo-Ukrainians and Russians differ from the Western Ukrainians because they originate from a relatively recent Russian colonization in the regions they inhabit. These areas were conquered from the Tatars who were protected by the Ottoman Empire, and were colonized in the 17th-20th centuries mainly by Russians and less by (Western) Ukrainians. Thus the Russian character prevailed in them.

The modern regions of Ukraine and their typical division in pro-Western and pro-Russian according to recent voting results.

The important thing is that the two Ukrainian nations, the ‘two Ukraines’ are almost separated geographically. It has been said that the borders between Ukraine and Russia are unclear. In fact, the boundary between the Russo-Ukrainians and the Euro-Ukrainians is clearer: the former prevail demographically in the eastern and southern country, i.e. in the regions of Kharkiv (Kharkov in Russian), Dniepropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporozhye, Kherson, Luhansk, Nikolaev and Odessa and additionally in the northern parts of Chernigov and Sumy. They also have a significant presence in the capital Kiev. They are usually supported by the Hungarians and the Ruthenians of the Transcarpathia (in the western end of Ukraine). The Crimea, already de facto a part of the Russian Federation, is inhabited by 58 % Russians, 25 % Ukrainians who are primarily Russian-speakers, and 12 % Tatars. Thereby, the peninsula is overwhelmingly Russian (around 75 %), while Sebastopol is the main naval base of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

The Euro-Ukrainians are concentrated mainly in the rest northwestern part of the country, including Kiev. But in case of a disintegration of the country (a rather not likely scenario), the Russo-Ukrainians will certainly demand a part of the capital along with the regions of Chernigov, Sumy and East Kiev in order to have territorial access to the city. In this case, the Poltava region will become the easternmost region of the new Ukraine (Euro-Ukraine). The Euro-Ukrainians have also a large presence in the southern regions of Nikolaev and Kherson and were usually supported by the Crimean Tatars (no longer a part of Ukraine). The remaining minorities (around 2 % of the total population) align themselves occasionally with the one side or the other, or remain neutral.

A recent proposal of a radical portion of the Russian-speakers for the establishment of an independent “Malorussian” state with its capital in Kharkov.

The geopolitical importance of Euro-Ukraine (western country) has been pointed out several times by the analysts worldwide, but it must be also noted that the Russo-Ukrainians control all the coasts of the country. And the Crimea, inhabited mainly by Russians, controls as a geophysical projection the whole continental coastline.
Many analysts worldwide, possibly most of them, predict a civil conflict in Ukraine either in the near future or certainly sometime in the future, which will lead to the disintegration of the country into two states. However, the Western Ukrainians may indicate in any way that they do not want to live together with their Southerner and Easterner ‘fellow countrymen’, but they are the ones who talk much less about dividing the country. The South-Easterners (Russian-speakers) seem to want more this dissolution and their independence, but they also keep a ‘waiting mode’ because they are very strong within the country: the Russo-Ukrainians are not just a minority but half the population, or a little less than this after the recent loss of Crimea.

Periklis Deligiannis