How History, Geography Help Explain Ukraine's Political Crisis

The country rests precariously between East and West.

Protesters clash with riot police during an opposition rally in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on January 19, 2014.

Ukraine's spreading protests are clearly tied to a modern dilemma: Should the country's allegiance lie with President Vladimir Putin's Moscow, or with the European Union? Yet a look back into its history and geography helps explain why that question is hardly new, and how the passions and upheaval of today 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 Catholic influences.

But it's not just about geography or religion. "The biggest divide after all these factors is between those who view the Russian imperial and Soviet rule more sympathetically versus those who see them as a tragedy," says Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

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 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.

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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 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 last 19th century. The Austro-Hungarian empire ended at the end of World War I, but that small part of western Ukraine remained outside the Russian empire and was incorporated into the U.S.S.R. only as a result of the Second World War.

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 languages 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 ecological 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 Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. He says his institute has 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 Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 and 2010.

With the protests spreading east, says Pifer, the protest "has metamorphosized into much more. This started out to be about Europe, but it's also turning into protests over democracy and the end of corruption." There also appear to be political divisions based on demographics, between younger and older generations, not just geography and a turbulent history.

Whether what is happening today will become a trend or is a short-term change to earlier divisions is unclear, says Harvard's Plokhii. "But the old lines are not applicable to the degree they were even just one month ago."