As Russia and Ukraine come ever closer to blows over Crimea, we explain, using maps, the issues at stake
10:35AM GMT 04 Mar 2014
Ukranian and Russian Military Balance
Ukraine’s regular army has only 65,000 soldiers, compared with almost 300,000 deployed in Russia’s western and southern military districts, which border Ukraine. Russia also has an established military presence inside the Ukrainian region of Crimea, centred around the Black Sea Fleet base at the port of Sevastopol. These forces have now fanned out across Crimea and seized de facto control of the territory.
EU gas dependency
The three pipelines that carry gas across Ukraine to Poland and Slovakia and on to the EU. Trade sanctions are unpopular among European countries, which are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. Europe gets 40 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. Germany is particularly reluctant to get into a sanctions war since it imports more than a third of its oil and gas from Russia.
Distribution of the population speaking Ukrainian or Russian
Behind the Headlines: History and Geography Help Explain Ukraine Crisis
The country rests precariously between East and West.
A woman wipes away tears as she walks away from a memorial in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARKO BANDIC, AP
for National Geographic
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 24, 2014
Charged with the mass killings of civilians, Ukraine’s recently ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, is now on the lam.
Last November Yanukovych touched off months of deadly protests in the capital of Kiev and other cities by caving into pressure from the country’s former overlords in Moscow and shelving a landmark trade deal with the European Union. Dozens of citizens died last week in clashes with police and security forces in Kiev.
On Saturday evening, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from his post as president.
The new government has now issued a warrant for the president’s arrest, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Yanukovych left Kiev by helicopter on Friday after signing an agreement to end the protests. On Saturday, he arrived in the eastern city of Donetsk, where he was prevented from leaving the country on a private jet. He then drove to Ukraine’s pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula and was most recently rumored to be in Sevastopol, the home port of both the Ukrainian navy and Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The Fault Lines of History
A look back into the country’s history and geography helps explain why Yanukovych would flee eastward, and how the passions and upheaval in the recent news stem from centuries of battles over Ukraine’s precarious position between East and West.
It was a history that created fault lines. Eastern Ukraine fell under Russian imperial rule by the late 17th century, much earlier than western Ukraine. This helps to explain why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, people in the east have generally supported more Russian-leaning politicians. Western Ukraine spent centuries under the shifting control of European powers like Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The western third of Ukraine was even part of Poland for several years leading up to World War II. That, to some degree, helps explain why people in the west have tended to support more Western-leaning politicians. The east tends to be more Russian-speaking and Orthodox, with parts of the west more Ukrainian-speaking and with heavier Roman Catholic influences.
But it’s not just about geography or religion. “The biggest divide,” saysAdrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States, “is between those who view the Russian imperial and Soviet rule more sympathetically versus those who see them as a tragedy.”
At first there were no such divisions. In the ninth century, Ukraine, known as Kievan Rus, was becoming the early seat of Slavic power and of the newly adopted Orthodox religion. But Mongol invasions in the 13th century curtailed Kiev’s rise, with power eventually shifting north into Russia, to present-day St. Petersburg and Moscow.
(Related video: Ukraine at the Crossroads)
East and West
Over the centuries, Ukraine—with its rich black soil that would help it become a major grain producer—was continually carved up by competing powers. In the 16th century, major swaths of the country were under the control of Poland and Lithuania, with Cossack fighters patrolling Ukraine’s frontier with Poland.
In the 17th century, war between the Tsardom of Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulted in more internal divisions. Lands to the east of the Dnieper River fell under Russian imperial control much earlier than Ukrainian lands to the west of the Dnieper. The east became known as “Left Bank” Ukraine and as a center of industry and coal. Lands to the west of the Dnieper, or “Right Bank,” were to be ruled by Poland. A small part in the west, called Galicia, was allotted to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ended at the conclusion of World War I, and Galicia remained outside the Russian Empire, becoming incorporated into the U.S.S.R. only as a result of the World War II.
Under the reign of Catherine the Great, the steppe areas of eastern Ukraine became major economic centers of coal and iron. The Ukrainian language—spoken in rural areas—was twice banned by decree of the tsar, says Karatnycky (and today both Ukrainian and Russian are spoken in the country). But peace did not last for long. After the communist revolution of 1917, Ukraine was one of the many countries to suffer a brutal civil war before becoming a Soviet republic in 1920.
In the early 1930s, to force peasants into joining collective farms, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine that resulted in the starvation and death of millions of Ukrainians. Afterward, Stalin imported large numbers of Russians and other Soviet citizens—many with no ability to speak Ukrainian and with few ties to the region—to help repopulate the east.
This, says former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, is just one of the historic reasons that helps explain why “the sense of Ukrainian nationalism is not as deep in the east as it is in west.”
On some maps you can even see the divide between the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine—known as the steppes—with their fertile farming soil, and the northern and western regions, which are more forested, says Serhii Plokhii, a history professor at Harvard and director of the university’s Ukrainian Research Institute. The institute has created a map depicting the demarcations between the steppe and the forest, a diagonal line between east and west, that bears a “striking resemblance” to political maps of the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 and 2010.
As the protests spread east, the conflict “metamorphosed into much more,” says Pifer. It was initially about Europe but in the end turned to the issues of democracy and the end of corruption. There also appeared to be political divisions based on demographics, between younger and older generations, not just geography and a turbulent history.
The organizers of the games in Sochi, Russia, promise that there will be snow for the winter Olympics that start there next Friday.
They’re hoping it’s mostly real snow, but they’ve also got hundreds of artificial snow makers at the ready, not to mention mountains of snow stored from last winter.
But snow isn’t enough. You also need a venue that can handle an influx of tens of thousands of people, and a location where the facilities will still be useful after all those people disappear.
That’s been a tough equation, even in the relatively stable climate since the first winter Olympics were held in 1924.
But global warming will only make it worse. How much worse?
A group of researchers led by Daniel Scott, a professor of Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has just co-authored a report called The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World.
It looked at the 19 cities that have hosted the games over the last 100 years, and looked forward under various climate change scenarios. What they found, Scott says, was that by mid-century “instead of 19 host cities being climate reliable, now we were down to about ten or 11. And then, when we looked further into the century under the sort of warmest scenarios, we were down to six of the original.”
Scott and his colleagues looked at two key factors.
Credit: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
Snow guns wait near a track at the Aibga Ridge, part of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics complex. Olympics organizers will have hundreds of artificial snow machines ready in case there isn’t enough of the real stuff. But even snow making may not help possible future winter Olympics.
One was snowpack — the likelihood that the mountains in the Olympic site would be able to maintain a bare minimum snow pack of at least 30 centimeters, or about a foot of natural or man-made snow.
The other factor, of course, was temperature, the likelihood that daily low temperatures would remain below freezing.
The farther they looked ahead into this century, the harder they found it would be to find places where both of these are reliable.
Of course, winter Olympics hosts have always faced weather challenges, and they’ve come up with lots of strategies and technologies to deal with the vagaries of even ordinary winter weather.
But Scott says there are limits to our ability to innovate our way past the challenges of a shrinking winter. For instance, he says, “you can make the snow at warmer temperatures in things called snow production plants, but when you put it out on the hill, you’re subject to the same melting.”
That means mushy snow, which Scott says is bad news for elite, Olympic-level events.
But the study only looked at the 19 places that have already hosted the winter Olympics. Those can’t be the only good locations for the games, right?
“It’s hard to find suitable places around the globe,” says Robert Steiger, a geographer at the Management Center Innsbruck, in Austria who worked with Daniel Scott on the report.
Steiger says it’s never been easy to locate the winter games. He says even his city of Innsbruck, which has hosted the games twice, in 1964 and 1976, probably couldn’t handle the influx of people that come with the mega-event that the modern Olympics have become.
So the winter games likely won’t be heading to more out of the way spots where there’ll still be snow. Don’t expect, for example, a winter Olympics in, say Greenland.
“To hold the Olympics in Greenland, the problem is, do you have the infrastructure, cities that are big enough, how do you get there, and so on,” Steiger says
Steiger and Scott do take heart in the likelihood that even in a significantly warmer world by the end of the century, there will still be at least six strong winter Olympic venues.
But as winter retreats around the world, it raises another big question. Even if you can still hold the winter Olympics, will anyone care?
“You may not be used to snow anymore in 50 years from now in some regions of the world,” Steiger says, “and then the question is, how interesting are winter Olympic games? It could be that it’s not any more a mass sports event.”
Of course, not to put too fine a point on it, but if winter is that rare in much of its former range by then, we’ll probably have much bigger problems to deal with than whether or not there’ll be winter Olympics.