via National Geographic: Behind the Headlines: History and Geography Help Explain Ukraine Crisis

A woman cries near a memorial for the people killed in clashes in Kiev.

A woman wipes away tears as she walks away from a memorial in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.


Eve Conant

for National Geographic


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.

A map of Ukraine.

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.

Ukrainian Identity

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.

via How the U.S. Maps the World’s Most Disputed Territories

Keywords: Boundary disputes; Toponyms (place-names); Delineate; Define; Demarcate; Metes-and-Bounds; State Shapes; Maritime Boundaries; Maps; GPS; Political Geography.

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How the U.S. Maps the World’s Most Disputed Territories

6:30 AM

When the United States decides to recognize a new government, or an existing country changes its name, Leo Dillon and his team at the State Department spring into action.

Dillon heads the Geographical Information Unit, which is responsible for ensuring the boundaries and names on government maps reflect U.S. policy. The team also keeps an eye on border skirmishes and territorial disputes throughout the world and makes maps that are used in negotiating treaties and truces. These days, Dillon says, maritime borders are where much of the action is. (The recent political squabbling and military posturing between China and Japan over the tiny islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan is one potentially worrisome case in point.)

Dillon’s been at the State Department since 1986, and he says his job remains as fun as ever. “The landscape of political geography is constantly changing,” he said. “Every day I come in here and there’s something new.” We spoke with Dillon to learn more about it.

WIRED: What’s an example of an interesting border dispute you’ve worked on?

Leo Dillon: One case I worked on that was kind of fun involves a tiny island off the coast of Morocco. It’s very close to shore and very, very small. But about 11 years ago Morocco sent a few troops there and Spain swooped in with helicopters and expelled them and it became a big deal.

[Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell was asked to mediate the conflict. [In Powell’s plan] everyone was going to leave the island, with no prejudice as to who it belonged to. They drew up an agreement but the problem was the name. The Spanish wouldn’t use the Moroccan name and the Moroccans wouldn’t use the Spanish name.

I was at a dinner party that Saturday night and I got a call from the Secretary’s staff saying that instead of a name they wanted to use the coordinates for that island. So I showed them how to get on a database and do that. I could hear the Secretary in the background saying, “Ask him how accurate those coordinates are.” They’re not totally accurate, but there’s no island nearby with which it could possibly be confused. So the documents he drew up for the mediations referred to “the island and such and such coordinates” and those documents had to be signed by the prime minister of Spain and the king of Morocco by midnight that same day.

The prime minister of Spain signed, no problem. But they had to send a high speed car looking for the king of Morocco. This was in the days before cellphones were prevalent. So they caught up to him and he basically had to pull over at some house and say, “Excuse me, I’m your king, could I use your phone?” He called up Powell and asked him to read the document, which he immediately agreed to. So that was a big deal, and my small part in it was to provide those coordinates. It’s a great example of how geographic names matter.

WIRED: Where do geographic names come from in more ordinary circumstances?

Dillon: What we’re looking for is names that are used officially or names that are used locally. Actually, officially usually trumps locally. Ninety-five percent of the names in our huge database come from official maps, and maybe five percent require special treatment. That’s where I come in quite often and investigate.

Especially in places like Asia or Africa it comes up because sometimes there’s a typo on a map or something doesn’t look quite right. A good example is a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. It’s an important town that’s been in the news a lot. Most people call it A’zaz, but then I noticed our staff had changed it to I’zaz because there’s a large scale map that spells it that way. And some local people apparently do call it I’zaz. But almost everybody calls it A’zaz, and I had to build a case using everything from Syrian websites, to reputable atlases like National Geographic to internet sources.

WIRED: What happens when a new country comes up? Does that trigger a lot of work for you?

Dillon: It sure does. Every time a new country comes by it shakes up the order. Usually you have a lot of advance notice, but it still gets complicated. For instance, when we recognized Kosovo there were many sets of boundaries. The peacekeeping forces there were using boundaries that weren’t really the legal boundaries at all. Their job was to keep peace in a buffer zone, so they’d set up working boundaries in a way that made it easier for them to keep people with guns apart. We were going with the largest scale available map, in this case a series of Yugoslavian-made maps in the Library of Congress. But it took a while to explain to people why we had the boundary the way we had it and what we were basing it on.

The names were an issue too. Before, Serbian names were all we used, but now the State Department said we can’t do that, we have to use both Serbian and Albanian names for each and every town and feature. We had to go chase down an authoritative source of Albanian place names, which had never really existed. The Kosovars did a reasonably good job of tracking them down. But then we had to make a basic reference map, and I couldn’t include as many towns as I wanted to because I couldn’t fit all the labels.

The other problem from our perspective is that a new country makes all the old reference maps obsolete. The other day I was asked for a good page-sized map of the Central African Republic because things are going on there. We have one produced in 2004. Well, it’s no good anymore because it doesn’t say South Sudan.

WIRED: What kinds of information do you use when you’re working on a border dispute?

Dillon: It’s mostly whatever commercial satellite imagery we have available. Honestly, these days it’s a lot of good old Google Earth. We prefer commercial because it’s neutral. But we also use terrain data from SRTM [the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission] or LIDAR or whatever else we need.

In one case, my colleague went to the capitals of both Kosovo and Macedonia. Formerly they were two states in Yugoslavia. Their borders weren’t all that properly defined, and they needed to normalize their borders to have proper diplomatic relations. But they were very mistrustful of each other. He showed up with some Google Earth and Landsat images and showed them that there was this ridge line. He showed them that it’s not a big deal, you might have to give up an acre here or there, but if you just follow the ridge line that’s where the boundary should be. And they agreed. So it was a kind of technical solution to a politically charged situation. It worked out very quickly.

WIRED: Do you ever go to a place and survey a disputed border?

Dillon: No, we don’t do that. That’s not our job. Instead we try to act as a good faith broker between two parties, and we only do it if they both ask us. That’s what happened in Kosovo-Macedonia. We also helped out in Azerbaijan-Armenia and Ethiopia-Eritrea.

WIRED: Do you ever use historic maps?

Dillon: All the time. A good example is during the Iraq war. Our embassy staff were trying to negotiate with the Kurds in the north, and the Kurds were saying these lands used to belong to us, and our folks there had no way of knowing if that was true. I got tasked with finding old maps that would corroborate what these guys are saying. So I went to the Library of Congress and found old maps of the area. I was able to make copies and georectify them and put them up against Kurds’ claims, and that was used as a negotiating tool. Our folks were able to say look, you said this whole area used to be in this particular province, but you can see here that only half of it was. And they’d say, “Oh yeah, maybe you’re right.”

One of my colleagues is working hard now on India and China, which is one of the few borders that never really had a solid treaty behind it. He’s got all these detailed maps from both sides, and he’s trying to work through the differences. He’s found areas where the British surveyors on the Indian side made mistakes. He’s basically doing detective work, where he can say it’s obvious they had a guy on this ridge line and another guy on this ridge line, but there was a valley in between they couldn’t see, so they basically drew a line where they shouldn’t have.

WIRED: Do you work with a lot of classified maps?

Dillon: Most classified maps we deal with are something that’s going on at a given time. They show the movement of rebel groups or narcotics or something like that. But they’re ephemeral. I don’t like to make them because why make a map that only a small number of people will see and is only useful for a short time?

WIRED: Where are some of the current hot spots in terms of border disputes?

Dillon: Maritime borders are really where the hot spots are right now. The South China Sea is huge right now. You’ve got all these tiny islands there that are claimed by various actors. In the eastern Mediterranean there’s all these complicated maritime agreements that some states recognize and other states don’t.

As people are trying to exploit resources in the sea it’s getting more and more important for them to be able to delimit the areas of sovereign rights. You have what’s called your territorial seas, which is 12 nautical miles [off the coast], then you have your exclusive economic zone which is 200 nautical miles, and you even have certain rights to what’s called the extended continental shelf which goes beyond 200 nautical miles — if you can define it. Some states are trying to do that responsibly using international law, and some states are not doing it responsibly.

WIRED: How does defining maritime borders differ from defining land borders?

Dillon: Maritime boundaries are actually simpler. Most people agree on a principle of equidistance, so you just have to get together and agree on a distance. You take an island or a coastline and start drawing concentric circles out and find a midline between them. But there are disputes all the time. Burma and Bangladesh took a case to the International Court of Justice recently. Chile and Peru is another case we’re really watching. A decision could be out any day.

WIRED: Is climate change creating new areas of dispute?

Dillon: Sea level rise is going to play an enormous role in coastal states. People who are trying right now to negotiate their maritime boundaries with a neighboring state have to take that into account. If you chose a spot right now that’s the terminus of your land boundary and you move it out 12 nautical miles, and your shoreline is very shallow, you may find yourself in 100 years with your land terminus underwater.

WIRED: Have open access cartography tools like Open Street Maps impacted your work?

Dillon: In a way, yes. Not so much with boundaries because boundaries are legal instruments. Anybody can put down a boundary in OSM but nobody’s going to pay attention to it because there’s nothing backing it up. But in the realm of names, definitely so. People are putting down names in OSM that are quasi-official or not official or local, and those are very interesting. We look at them and we collect them.

Before the internet, we had a much easier time defending the names we used because we were considered much more of an authority. Now, if you want to find out how to spell a town in an Arabic country, if you go to Wikipedia you may find a name that’s more commonly used on the ground. It’s something we’re having a hard time keeping up with. The democratization of cartography, much like the internet as a whole, has opened up the world of geographical knowledge to a much bigger degree.

Reblog: The Red Badge of Geopolitics: Remembering D-Day from a Geopolitical Perspective

The Red Badge of Geopolitics: Remembering D-Day from a Geopolitical Perspective.

The original article can be found at the blog link above.

Topics: Political Geography, geopolitics, rimland theory, heartland theory


The Red Badge of Geopolitics: Remembering D-Day from a Geopolitical Perspective

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island
Who rules the World-Island commands the World” -MacKinder
Too often, we learn of history as a narrative. History has become a subject dominated by anecdotal evidence and non sequiturs. As a result, important facts become eclipse and their significance diminishes. D-Day, too, falls victim to this historical revision. So let us take some time to discover what geopolitical lessons we can glean on the 69th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.
When the Nazis seize control of Germany, they sought to acquire “living space”. They fully believed in the heartland theory. The heartland theory states that the lands of Eastern Europe to the Ural Mountains in Russia along the Mongolian Plateau and down into the Hindu Kush form a resource rich land, which, if unified, would allow the controlling state to dominate Eurasia and the rest of the world. For this reason, the Nazis have a strong Prussian feel to them. Intensely focused on expansion into Eastern Europe, the Nazis sought to gain control of the heartland and from there to dominate the world.
With the early failings of Western Europe against the Nazi war machine, Germany had come to dominate Europe. This representative geopolitical nightmare, as this allowed the Nazis to gain the European rim. Although the heartland theory mentions nothing of Western Europe or the European rim, rimland theory goes into this geographic region in detail. In rimland theory, states located along strategic coast of Eurasia, or rimland’s, come to dominate these rim regions. (Rimland theory considers Europe one of the most important rims.) From these rimland’s, states proceed to project power into the Eurasian heartland. With access to the world’s oceans and should teach it resources, rimland states go on to dominate the world.
Accidentally, the Third Reich transformed into a rimland power. With an empire, which at its height, stretched from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow Nazi Germany had control of one rimland and flirted with dominating the heartland. If not for the brave actions of the D-Day heroes, the Nazi jackboot would still fly high today.
After all, D-Day liberated the European rim. D-Day had denied the Nazis access to the world’s oceans and the economic and industrial advantages that come inherently with sea access.
Although one cannot question the heroics involved in D-Day, Operation Overlord clearly involve much more than courage. D-Day took into account geopolitical theory and formulated a strategy that allowed the United States and the Allies to ultimately win the war. Therefore, let us not lose sight of this fact. Further, with the challenges facing us today, we must pursue strategies that best implement geopolitical theory.