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Ukrainian Regionalism and the Federal Option

Submitted by on April 4, 2014 – 12:37 pm 41 Comments |  
Ukraine2004ElectionMapLike many other pundits, David Frum fears that Vladimir Putin is plotting to transform Ukraine into a weak federation and then transform some of its federal units into de facto Russian dependencies. As he argues in a recent Atlantic article:

In the weeks since Russian forces seized Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s plan for mainland Ukraine has become increasingly clear: partition. Putin’s ambassadors and ministers don’t use that word, of course. In talks with their U.S. and NATO counterparts, they prefer the word “federalism.” They want to organize manipulated referendums to create Russian-aligned governments in the eastern regions of Ukraine. These governments would be endowed with broad powers, including authority over trade, investment, and security. Russia would then reach deals with these governments in an arrangement that would amount to annexation in all but name.

Frum goes on to make some interesting observations about the ambiguities in the idea of a federation. As he notes, although Russia proclaims itself to be a federation rather than a national state, it is actually governed from the center, allowing little autonomy for its so-called federal subjects. As Frum explains:

Russia, of course, is itself one of the most centralized nations on earth. The president appoints regional governors, who in turn handpick the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate. The central government controls most state revenue, the police— really, almost everything.

Ukraine2006ElectionMapMy main complaint with Frum’s formulation is his use of the term “nation” in the first sentence. Russia may be a centralized state, but that does not make it a nation state, much less a nation, as its constituent nationalities are categorized as separate entities. In Russia, even passports make it clear that Tatars, Chechens, Jews, and others do not belong to the Russian nation, as explained in a previous GeoCurrents post.

The kind of federation that Putin seems to envisage for Ukraine, however, is not the superficial variety epitomized by Russia, but rather the fully decentralized type in which the federal government has scant power, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ukrainian nationalists loathe the idea of transforming their country into a loose amalgamation, seeing, like Frum, a pretext for de facto partition and Russian domination. But regardless of Russian designs, Ukraine will probably continue to have trouble cohering as tightly unified state, as its split between the generally Russian-oriented southeast and the nationalistic and Western-oriented northwest is too profound. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, the Russian-inclined candidate Victor Yanukovych won over 90 percent of the vote in two far east eastern oblasts (Luhansk and Donetsk), whereas his rival Victor Yushchenko took over 95 percent of the vote in two regions of the far west (Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil). Such deep polarization does not bode well for Ukraine’s political future.

As is evident (and as was explained in earlier GeoCurrents posts), Ukraine is thus divided into two political units by a line running from the southwest to the northeast. But both of the resulting “macroregions” are in turn politically subdivided. The remainder of this post will examine the divisions of the northwest, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism.

UkrainePoliticalRegonsMapOn the map to the left, I have labeled the northwestern half of the country “Nationalist Ukraine,” as distinguished from the southeastern “Russia-Oriented Ukraine.” Based on recent voting patterns, I have divided the former unit into three subregions. The first, labeled here “Core Ukraine,” is marked by pronounced but not overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalists and Western-oriented politicians. To the west of the core is a smaller region composed of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil oblasts, which is characterized by overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalism along with Ukraine2012ElectionSvobodaMapa strong measure of extreme nationalism. In this region, called here Far Western Ukraine, the Orange-Revolution hero Victor Yushchenko took more than 93 percent of the vote in 2004. In the 2006 election, the Far West, unlike neighboring oblasts to the east, generally rejected the Yulia Tymoshenko Block, supporting instead Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. In the most recent election (2012), the extremist neo-fascist party Svoboda polled well only in this region, where it took more than 30 percent of the vote – and a plurality in Lviv.

Ukraine2012ElectionMapWhile the Far West is the most ardent part of Ukraine’s nationalistic greater northwest, the extreme western oblast of Zakarpattia barely fits the pattern. In 2012, the Russian-oriented Party of Region took a plurality of its votes. The extreme nationalist party Svoboda, moreover, is relatively weak here. Zakarpattia also distinguishes itself in its variable voting Ukraine2012ElectionOudarMappatterns, which separate district from district, as can be seen in the map of the 2006 election. Zakarpattia is also notable for having given a substantial percentage of its votes in 2012 to Vitali Klitschko, a former highly successful professional boxer dubbed “Dr. Ironfist” in reference both to his physically prowess and his educational attainment (he holds a doctorate in “sports science” and is an avid chess player).  Klitschko pushes for European integration, reduced corruption, and enhanced transparency, as well as lower taxes, but does not advocate cultural nationalism, viewing the language issues as relatively unimportant.

Ruthenia MapZakarpattia’s distinctiveness is rooted in part in its physical geography. Located on the far side of the formidable Carpathian Mountains from the rest of the country, it is located in and on the outskirts of the Danubian Basin, also known as the Pannonian Plain. As such, it is much more easily accessible from Budapest, Bratislava, and even Vienna than it is from Kyiv (Kiev), let alone Moscow.

Historical-geographical patterns also help explain the political regionalization of “Nationalist Ukraine.” The main part of this region, which I dubbed “Core Ukraine” on the map above, was long under Polish-Lithuanian domination, but came under Russian rule with the partition of Poland in the late 1700s. Far Western Ukraine, on the other hand, passed from Polish rule to the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire, forming the Ukraine1700PoliticalMapeastern portion of its region of Galicia. It was returned to Poland after World War I, and did not become part of the Soviet Union until the end of World War II. The Austrian period seems to have been crucial in nurturing the far West’s devotion to Ukrainian nationalism as well as identification with the West. The key factor here was the continued survival and indeed florescence of the Uniate Church, which had emerged in the late 1500s under Polish-Lithuanian rule, when the Roman Catholic Church successfully brought part of the local religious establishment under its umbrella as one of the so-called Eastern Catholic churches (such self-governing Catholic divisions were allowed to keep their own liturgies, as well as married priests). As explained in an excellent Wikipedia article on the history of Christianity in Ukraine:

Ukraine1900PoliticalMapThe Austrians granted equal legal privileges to the Uniate Church and removed Polish influence. They also mandated that Uniate seminarians receive a formal higher education (previously, priests had been educated informally by other priests, usually their fathers, as the vocation was passed on within families), and organized institutions in Vienna and Lviv that would serve this function. This led to the appearance, for the first time, of a large educated social class within the Ukrainian population in Galicia. As a result, within Austrian Galicia over the next century the Uniate Church ceased being a puppet of foreign interests and became the primary cultural force within the Ukrainian community. Most independent native Ukrainian cultural trends … emerged from within the ranks of the Uniate Church. The participation of Uniate priests or their children in western Ukrainian cultural and political life was so great that western Ukrainians were accused of wanting to create a theocracy in western Ukraine by their Polish rivals

Zakarpattia, or trans-Carpathian Ukraine, experienced a markedly different political history, as it was long part of Hungary, even during the period when Hungary was subordinated to Austrian power under the Hapsburg dynasty. It passed to Czechoslovakia in the inter-war period, and did not Austria-HungaryRutheniaMapbecome part of Ukraine, and hence the Soviet Union, until the end of World War II. This region’s local “Uniate” Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, was mostly eradicated, or at least forced underground, by Soviet-era persecution. As a result, it maintained its structures most successfully among emigrant populations in the United States. Incidentally, the best-known American member of this community is the pop-artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), born Andrej Varhola, Jr. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Ruthenian Church’s main body in the United States, not coincidently, is the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.

(Note: the base maps used for the historical maps here is the Euratlas, an excellent source. )




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  • Randy McDonald

    I’ve taken pictures of a few Eastern-Rite Ukrainian/Ruthenian churches in Toronto and New York: St. Mary’s ( and St. Nicholas ( in west-end Toronto, and St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church ( in Manhattan. They can be very beautiful buildings.

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  • craig643

    Another very informative and interesting background article on Ukraine; very happy I found this site.

    • Thanks, Craig. We hope you find more interesting stuff on our site!

  • Luke S.

    Thanks for the great article. I never had heard of the very distinctive votings in the extreme far east.

  • Phil_Daniels

    Excellent post, in particular I appreciate being able to relate recent voting patterns to geo-political history and religious influences past and present.

    Thanks Phil D

  • Muhammad

    Interesting. If Russia takes a nice slice of east and south Ukraine, it will have access to the breakaway pro-Russian state in Moldova.

    I bet the CIA are regretting their coup now.

    • SirBedevere

      If I thought you were American, I would chastise you for the arrogant attitude that everything that occurs in the world occurs only because Americans want it to. Since I assume you are not, I will chastise you for the fatalistic attitude that everything that occurs in the world occurs only because Americans want it to. Of course, you couldn’t possibly change something just by voting with your fellow countrymen, so I guess you will have to look for some heroic, if brutal, strong man to protect you against the evil Yankee plutocrats.

      • swissdirectdemocrat

        you cannot mean the pope, so do mean vladimir putin?

    • And why do you choose to believe Putin’s propaganda?

  • MP

    A small comment/correction. Your last two maps show Bukovina as part of Galicia. At those times (1900 and 1918) the region was not part of Galicia but was a separate province.

    “Bukovina was a closed military district (1775–1786), then the largest district, Kreis Czernowitz (after its capital Czernowitz) of the Austrian constituent Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1787–1849). On 4 March 1849, Bukovina became a separate Austrian Kronland ‘crown land’ under a Landespräsident (not a Statthalter, as in other crown lands) and was declared the Herzogtum Bukowina (a nominal duchy, as part of the official full style of the Austrian Emperors). In 1860 it was again amalgamated with Galicia, but reinstated as a separate province once again 26 February 1861, a status that would last until 1918.” from

  • Ilya Zlatanov
    • Thanks for sharing this. The article makes depressing reading, as it revels the extent of geographical ignorance in the US. Only one in six Americans, evidently, can locate Ukraine on a world map. Quite a few seem to think that it is in Greenland. I have posted a very small version of the map below that shows where Americans locate Ukraine.

      • Ilya Zlatanov

        That is why I appreciate your educational activities even higher 🙂

        • Thank you, Ilya. We try to combat geographical illiteracy. And it is indeed a sad state of affairs…

      • Martin, I doubt most of those Greenland answers were in earnest. Greenland is better known than most world map features (do you not find?), and it is drawing a lot of deliberate responses. It could be a convenient answer for those who don’t want to be bothered, and it makes me question the entire survey.

    • I’ve linked below to a slightly-longer response to the bad geographical theory in the Post article, but the short version is that the authors, all political scientists, believe that an answer in their poll is closer to the truth (represents “more” knowledge) the closer it is to the actual Ukraine, on a sliding scale, and I think they’re quite wrong. Mistaking Kazakstan for Ukraine is a better answer than the much-closer southern Russia, because it suggests that the respondents recognize Russia, and are looking for something distinct from it, but with Ukraine’s approximate spatial relationship. Also, as statisticians pointed out, the authors find the correlation significant, but never describe the magnitude of the effect.

      • Ilya Zlatanov

        Thanks for your exhaustive answer.I see that you have advanced knowledge of the issue. Could you please comment two more maps:

        • The quiz is harmless enough, I suppose. But it’s not the best test even of what “countries” there are, since the player is required to know what single version of the name the game recognizes. And the results are obviously not representative of anything; a quarter of all scores are 188-196/197, and yet “only” 2% got a perfect score.

          I’m a fan of NG, but the map is a misleading
          combination of fine distinctions of population distribution with crude distinctions of income. Location is broken down quite precisely, while income shows a mere four categories, and only by countries. Countries often have great internal differences in income. Put another way, this exercise layers a very good map on a not-good map. I don’t see the point.

    • swissdirectdemocrat

      thats the pattern of US-empire. US-citizens big majority is very uneducated and uninterested in issues outside US (not to say very stupid or silly). They think to be the top of mankind – what a ridiculous error. US-disaster in Iraq is due to this stupid mentality and bad education. – greetings from a direct-democrat Swiss.

  • Fedor Manin

    I’m having trouble reconciling the local popularity and supposed extremism of Svoboda with reports like this one:

    From all I’ve read in the past couple months, I’m not convinced that political polarization in Ukraine is unavoidable. Or even that strong. In an era in which politics was universally corrupt and not very interesting, people went for the devil they knew. Do the opinion polls for the upcoming presidential election feature geographic breakdowns?

    • Thank you for your comment, Fedor. The report in Grani does seem to take a rather one-sided approach, which is understandable because they explicitly claim to be a countermeasure for another one-sided approach: Putin’s propaganda. Voting numbers from recent elections do speak for the relative popularity of Svoboda. It will be interesting to see how the next elections work out…

      Re: political polarization in Ukraine, I think it is much stronger than in the US, where 60-40 split is considered “polarization”. In certain Ukrainian elections, in one part of the country a certain candidate or party took over 90% of the votes, in another area another candidate comes on top with over 90%. Now there seem to be more candidates and it remains to be seen how polarized those elections will be. I haven’t seen any maps or geographical data from opinion polls, maybe our other readers know?

      • Fedor Manin

        To be clear, by “strong” I mean deeply-rooted, that the polarization in individual elections reflects differences of opinion rather than regional candidacies. It’s true that past elections have seen very strong polarization on the surface. I’m wondering how easy it will be for it to fall away in a more complete democracy. Time will tell.

        In the United States, certain groups do vote 90%+ for one party. Blacks vote 90%+ Democratic. Whites in Alabama and Mississippi vote well over 80% Republican. It’s just that those are mixed together in one area.

        I was thinking of bits like this in the Grani article:
        “Все на вопрос о притеснениях русскоязычных или евреев отвечают: это смешно. Нам самим было уже смешно задавать этот вопрос, но мы его упорно задавали и получали всегда один и тот же ответ.”

        “Я очень старалась найти человека, от которого можно было услышать другое мнение, – такое поразительное единодушие настораживало.”
        They at least make out as if they were looking very hard to find a view that wasn’t one-sided.

        • It’s true that we do get a strong polarization in the US as well. In Ukraine the same polarized pattern held from 2002 to 2012, so it will be interesting to see if it holds further. Of course, the most recent events in Donetsk mean that some areas (besides Crimea, obviously) might not be voting in the Ukrainian elections at all.

          If the Grani report is accurate and representative, it’s curious what happened to the 30%+ of the people in the Lviv region who voted for Svoboda…

  • Ilya Zlatanov

    Last year the geneticist Anatoly Klyossov published in
    Russian an article titled “Who makes from Ukraine an isolated island” with two maps: “Ukraine through the eyes of the
    residents of Lviv” and “Genetic distances from the
    Ukrainians” The
    author challenges the idea that Ukrainians are closer to the Poles than to the Russians

    • Thank you for drawing my attention to this article, Ilya. In my opinion, the genetics of these different groups is far more complicated than either this article or the Balanovsky article he criticizes make seem. But the genetic findings have been politicized on both sides. I didn’t like the tone of Klyossov’s article, however, as he criticizes Balanovsky and his colleagues for the politicization of their findings that other people did. Yet Balanovsky and his lab have been doing some really solid work, and I can’t say the same about Klyossov himself (we’ve exchanged messages and papers last year, so I got a pretty extensive picture of his work).

      I did like the map of Ukraine through the eyes of residents of Lviv—some of it is accurate and funny. But the stereotypes themselves are neither of those things, of course.

      • Ilya Zlatanov

        I began to read about DNA genealogy only two years ago and I still don’t feel prepared to express my opinion. SNP and STR, fast and slow markers – I need more time to grasp all this. But I know for sure that Klosov’s tone is far from academic impartiality, no matter what the topic is. This makes me suspicious to his conclusions. This doesn’t
        mean I will stop reading him, because there is hope to weed out the wheat from the chaff. As to Balanovsky, I read only the abstract of his dissertation on the gene pool of the Russian plain. What makes an unpleasant impression is that two seemingly serious scientists serve political goals after all. I shared the article firstly because Lvivyans’ map is really funny (as any map of stereotypes) and secondly because “science as a servant of politics” is really a topical theme, especially in light of recent events in Ukraine

        • I agree with you re: Klyossov. Re: Balanovsky, I’ve read a lot of work he’s been involved in. It does seem both solid (to my less than an expert eye) and accepted by other geneticists. Re: politicization of science, it’s not right but scientists can hardly know in advance who and why and how might twist their findings to serve their political agendas. And I think it would be wrong for scientists to avoid doing certain research because it MIGHT be used for political purposes by someone else. That by itself would be politicization of science, no?

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            politicization of science

            Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing self-censorship. I just don’t accept speculations that are not supported by solid evidences and therefore sound biased. Let’s say “The bearers of R1a haplogroup, which nowadays prevail in Eastern Europe, were Indo-Europeans while the Arbins (R1b) – ancestral to many Western European subclades – brought to Europe non-Indo European languages. The Arbins have APPARENTLY established the Sumer culture and migrated westward to Europe by several routes. IT SEEMS that the arrival of the Aryans (R1a) in Europe had been peaceful; However, the arrival of the Arbins (R1b) was marked by almost complete elimination of the autochthonous haplogroups from Europe” (capitals mine). What is the implication, the intimation of this text, which reads between the lines? You tell me 🙂

          • I agree with you on the tone. But in general I am concerned that people all too easily tie languages and DNA. There’s no solid evidence that R1a is connected to IE languages, although many people make that assumption…

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            That’s what I am speaking about.Although nowadays the interdisciplinary approach seems trendy –

          • Yes, interdisciplinary approach is all the rage, but… there’s a problem that people in different fields do not understand each other’s concerns, methods etc. I talk about it at the end of the video here:


            As for Mr. Klyossov, I had an unfortunate opportunity to exchange lengthy emails with him some time ago. He does tend to lament that nobody is open to his DNA-genealogy but the problem is that most people who do that sort of work call themselves “population geneticists” (and he thinks they are the enemy too). Also, he doesn’t understand the basic terms, tenets and questions of linguistics and is not open to learning about them, but he complains that linguists are indifferent to his “findings”. Why should linguists drop everything and discuss what’s interesting for him (and only for him, it seems, as I’ve never seen him team up with anyone)?! Thus, I find it a waste to discuss matters with him. But I have been involved in very productive discussions with other geneticists, archeologists, anthropologists etc. So it’s not a matter of fields per se, just how much people want to bridge them…

  • BoBo

    A quick look at any map of Ukraine showing Russia’s Naval Base at
    Sevastopol, Crimea (which has given them greater access to the Black Sea
    and beyond) must partially figure in the Crimean’s bid for secession
    from Ukraine once the generally anti-Russian junta in Kiev occurred.

    • It’s interesting to see how you manipulate language to manipulate the world: the government in Kiev is lawfully elected, while “junta” is more applicable to the government in Moscow. Crimea didn’t SECEDE, but was annexed, etc. Moreover, the way you put it doesn’t make any sense: why would Crimea want to be part of Russia, so that Russia rather than Ukraine can use it to reach the greater world? What is often forgotten in this debate is that Crimea is not money-making, but money-sucking area and largely has been since WWII (and deportations). I’ve written more on this here:

      • Bobo

        Your spin remains a spin. “KIEV” was clearly a Western-Supported Junta.. Ukraine has become a Western Supported WarMongering nation. Russia is the only nation giving AID to 10’s of 1000’s of distraught Eastern Ukrainians devastated by KIEV. In May of this year, the Crimean Russian majority citizens, despised by Ukraine’s leadership – overwhelmingly voted during their Referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Putin recognized the will of the Crimean people and Obama did not. Anyone would be a fool if they thought that Russia would stand idly by and allow the West to undermine its long-standing Naval base at Sevastopoi, Crimea; now, Russia.

        • To regurgitate such Putin-run propaganda doesn’t do much good to the impression you make, and with the internet literally at your fingertips it is, frankly, inexcusable.