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Ukraine and the Enigma of Defining Regions in a Borderland Zone

Ukraine and the Enigma of Defining Regions in a Borderland Zone

1 Comment 🕔28.Apr 2014

This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.

Detailed map of Crimea

by Catherine Wanner 

What prompts a person to self-identify as from the Donbass, Catalonia, Transylvania or Tyrol as opposed to being from Ukraine, Spain, Romania or Italy? A list of competing regional and national identities in Europe, many of which have even been created since the end of the Cold War, would be long and growing. A wave of regionalism is sweeping Europe, effectively challenging the autonomy of the nation-state. Transnational political organizations, such as the European Union (EU), and the dynamics of globalization bypass national states as they link robust cities to regions and regions to each other, leaving the nation-state diminished in importance. In Ukraine, a newly created independent state in a borderland zone, the nation-state is exceptionally fragile and the appeal of regionalism is particularly robust. I offer some thoughts from the margins of Europe on the difficulties of defining regions. Given that delineating Ukraine’s regions impacts the contours of Europe, a political crisis in an eastern Ukrainian province has far-reaching ramifications for Europeans as well.

Regions of Ukraine have been under Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian imperial rule. This historical legacy of multifaceted colonial subjugation casts a long shadow into the politics of Ukraine today. Many regional cultural practices straddle political borders and can be found in more than one state, which complicates defining a regional relationship to a particular center of political power. The need to do so, however, becomes quite urgent when the center is perceived as illegitimate. The discontent that spurred the political crisis in Ukraine initially generated a bifurcated choice of either Kyiv or Moscow, Europe or Eurasia. Lately, it has taken a more insidious turn as the focus has turned to the regions.

A seemingly obvious term, the word ‘region’ is nonetheless understood in many ways. In a popular sense, a region usually refers to a geographical definition or an area with common environmental or ecological features, such as Transcarpathia (over the Carpathian Mountains) or Donbass (the region around the Don River basin). Beyond geography, region often denotes a formally structured political sub-unit characterized by a body of public law, such as the Crimean Autonomous Republic.[1] Ukraine now consists of 24 oblasts, or provinces. The name of the oblast is usually derived from its most important city. This means that ‘region’ in Ukraine is often understood in terms of sub-state political units established around a defining city.

Barricade on Hrushevskogo Street in Kiev, Jan 25 2014 - Sasha Maksymenko

Barricade on Hrushevskogo Street in Kiev, Jan 25 2014 – Sasha Maksymenko

The term ‘regionalism’ refers to a principle that favors the recognition – in a multitude of possible forms – of the authority, autonomy, and agency of local entities variously understood. Regionalism always exists among a broad spectrum of other possibilities. Individuals and groups evaluate the meaning and relevance of regionalism within a roster of identities. The hierarchical organization of those identities and the links they create to other peoples and places at any given time is the result of past cultural encounters. Certainly since Ukrainian independence in 1991, regionalism has been a key factor shaping the cultural landscape, forging political coalitions, and establishing patterns of regional identification.

As early as 1997, John Newhouse wrote of Europe, “At varying speeds and to varying degrees, authority is drifting down from national capitals to provinces and cities. Regionalism, whether within or across national borders, is Europe’s current and future dynamic. Its sources vary, but it is judged on many sides to be partly a protest against the authority of national capitals by people who see themselves as belonging, historically and otherwise, more to “Europe” than to a nation-state of clouded origins and dubious boundaries.”[2] In Europe, the political principle of regionalism has allowed authority to take many forms: decentralized in Switzerland, elective administrative in Norway, and constitutional in Germany (länder and three cities, Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen). In this way, regions are on their way to supplanting the political authority and public policy functions that we usually attribute to nation-states by assuming policy-making roles in such spheres as justice, tolerance, and the protection of human rights.

Separatist movements mobilize principles of regionalism to challenge the oppressiveness of a culturally and politically dominant ‘national’ center of power. They draw on narratives of the right to self-determination for legitimacy to advocate for increased autonomy. In the twenty-first century the rhetoric of regionalism has shifted away from politics and cultural rights to an economic argument, to pleas to be spared the fiscal responsibility of others. The resistance of regions to be economically responsible for others translates into regional movements for greater autonomy, if not outright independence, from perceived less-developed regions and states. Indeed, separatist movements derive a good bit of their appeal from their declared ability to protect the economic prowess of a particular region even as the same economic imbalances continue to fortify regional cleavages.[3]

Ukraine is particularly vulnerable to such separatist forces. The crisis that has overtaken the country since November 2013 has provoked calls for a process of ‘regionalization’, or the creation of sub-state political units under a national state that are designed to assume the power and responsibilities for governing. This process of regionalization represents a sharp departure from the centralized state structures that have characterized governance in much of Europe, and to an even more intense degree, statecraft and politics in the USSR. Ukraine is a highly decentralized country. Several different cities make distinct contributions by being the industrial, agricultural, cultural, academic, and, of course, political capitals of the country. Yet, how does one define the perimeters of a region and how might regionalism interface with other sources of allegiance and identity?


Delineating Regions

The USSR, like the European Union, was created as a single economic space where patterns of production and commerce, following another logic, were allowed, and even encouraged, to override culturally constructed lines of national division.  The crisis in Ukraine raises the question as to whether the USSR, as an overarching economic and political governing body, played the same role in enhancing regional identities and allegiances in the former Soviet Union as the EU has recently played.

The media, especially in the West, often refer to a polarized ‘left bank’ and ‘right bank’. Scholars, however, make only a somewhat finer distinction, usually acknowledging the western Ukrainian ‘region’ as comprising three oblasts, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil, and in a wider sense two additional oblasts, Riven and Lutsk. Eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, is usually envisioned as two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and in a wider sense includes Zaporizhzhya, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv.[4]

The Soviet disregard for national borders, which were themselves based on a perceived common historical experience, in favor of economic interests allowed new ties to emerge. The example of this practice has become Crimea. Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from Russia in 1954 because distribution and supply channels provisioning the Crimean Autonomous Republic ran through Ukraine, not from Russia over the Azov or Black Seas. Vital resources, such as water, were piped to Crimea from the Dnipro River in Ukraine. Administratively, it simply made bureaucratic sense to transfer Crimea to Ukraine even though the peninsula had enormous sentimental value for Russians.[5] Putin claims to have righted a bureaucratic wrong by annexing a region that was rightfully Russian. With the stroke of a pen in 1954, and now 60 years later with a single referendum, this region switched countries.

One of the factors that allowed Putin to do this was that the Russian speakers in Crimea do not feel represented by the Ukrainian national government. Although they do not possess a strong regional identity, they generally express an allegiance with Russia based on perceived cultural and linguistic affinity. This is why Putin refers to them as ‘compatriots’ (sootechestvenniki). In contrast, the Crimean Tatars consider themselves a separate nation tied to a Crimean ‘homeland’ and remain sympathetic to the Ukrainian government, laying the groundwork for further conflicts.

The next ‘region’ in dispute is in eastern Ukraine, where a similar historically and culturally induced orientation to Russia predominates. But the implications of separatism here are far less clear, in part because we are not looking at a peninsula with clearly delineated physical boundaries. Donetsk is the largest city in Donetsk province, known in Soviet times as the cradle of the proletariat, the epicenter of the coal mining industry and of Stakhanovite workers fulfilling the plan.  The Soviet celebration of hard manual work turned coal miners into ‘heroes of labor’. Rogue ‘pro-Russian activists’ have occupied regional government administrative buildings in smaller cities in the province, declaring themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic. They are demanding increased autonomy from both Kyiv and Moscow, with a preference for Russia. They do not recognize the authority of the ‘neo-Nazis’ running the ‘junta’ in Kyiv.

But what exactly would be the contours of the Donetsk People’s Republic? References to the Donbass usually include neighboring Luhansk oblast. Indeed, some media translate the protesters political aspirations as the ‘Donbass People’s Republic’, which significantly expands the territorial aspirations of these pro-Russian activists. Donetsk and Luhansk are two of the top three oblasts that contribute to the Ukrainian national income and total production output. Still, because of the high degree of decentralization in the country, some economists point to the fact that the loss of Crimea in economic terms is negligible and that the loss of the Donbass would only amount to a 16 percent drop in gross national product.[6] This is significant, but perhaps not crippling for a country that is already facing bankruptcy.

Banknotes of Ukraine

Banknotes of Ukraine

In any event, few are wasting time debating the exact economic weight of either Donetsk oblast or the Donbass region because, in expressing his determination to protect the interests of ‘compatriots’ in Ukraine, Putin has referred to ‘Novorossiia’, or New Russia. Novorossiia includes not just Donetsk and Luhansk, but potentially other largely Russian-speaking oblasts such as Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa as well. Novorossiia harks back to when this region was called Novorossiskaya Gubernia as a province of the Russian Empire.  Moreover, Novorossiia is a collection of territories that conveniently forms a crescent surrounding whatever might be left of Ukraine. It also unites eastern Ukraine with recently annexed Crimea and a sliver of a Russian ‘protectorate’, a breakaway region from Moldova known as Transnistria, giving Putin a block of interconnected territory, much of it with warm water ports. Putin’s justification for designating this collection of oblasts as Novorossiia is once again a highly selective reading of history that allows him to claim that those oblasts are really Russia.

The question then arises as to whether the Donetsk People’s Republic is the beginning of the unraveling of Ukraine and, if so, where will it stop? Some pro-Russian activists have proposed referendums oblast by oblast with the idea that, depending on the outcome of these referendums, the Donetsk People’s Republic could eventually become the southeastern Ukrainian federal state of Novorossiia.[7]

Why not then refer to Malorossiia, or Little Russia, as the entire Ukrainian region was called in the Russian Empire? There is also the Orthodox term ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) to connote all Eastern Slavic Christians as part of the Orthodox flock under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Putin references the ‘Russian World’ as an imperial trinity uniting Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. The concept of the ‘Russian World’ also spatially identifies a template for political boundaries based on a projection of a shared religious and cultural history, which clearly does not include the politically unsavory western regions of Ukraine.

There is no denying the cultural vestiges of the long-standing relationship between Russians and Ukrainians that are audible in the ongoing predominance of Russian language use and in the support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is under the Moscow Patriarchate, as opposed to those who are under the jurisdiction of the Kyiv Patriarchate or the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a faith tradition that predominates in the western part of Ukraine.

For Ukrainians, the point is that when Russian officials begin to claim that Russia has a vested interest in the well-being of ‘compatriots’ and therefore in certain regions in Ukraine, it is not at all clear if those regions are bounded entities with identifiable borders or not. I think what troubles Mr. Putin is that the arbitrary Soviet republican borders, which in 1991 became internationally recognized state borders, were never meant to sever this southern region – however understood – from Russia.


Ukraine and European Borderlands

The firm separation for most of the twentieth century that isolated European countries with socialist regimes from those that had capitalist ones has come to an end. As the EU formally expands, so does our understanding of what Europe is and how we should understand its common historical experience. Yet, some formerly socialist states have struggled to forge nations and a sense of national and European identity. The legitimacy of these newly created states has been challenged by regional pulls and ties. We have seen how the Donetsk People’s Republic could be understood to include the oblast, the Donbass region, Novorossiia, Malorossiia, or even the Russian World.

Ukraine is a country whose very name means ‘borderland.’ It has historically been the meeting and melding points of empires, cultures, and confessions, and today this historical legacy is playing itself out politically through its regional diversity. This crisis has become something of a Russian nesting doll. One of the more unexpected consequences of the crisis is that as Ukraine defines its regions, and by extension itself, so are Europe’s borders defined and ultimately even the value of the European project.


Catherine Wanner is Professor of History, Anthropology, and Religious Studies at Penn State University, where she is also the Director of the Paterno Fellows Program. Her research interests center broadly on the politics of religion and secularizing projects, with special attention to socialist societies. Dr. Wanner is the author of Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelismand the editor of State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine.

This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.

[1] The Association of European Regions, an umbrella organization that represents 33 Council of Europe countries with 270 regions, including many from the former USSR, uses a more formal definition of region: “the territorial body of public law established at the level immediately below that of the State and endowed with political self-government” (Article 1.1) Using law as the measure by which we delineate regions implies great variation. Some countries have federal structures with formally structured sub-state legislative powers, i.e., Switzerland and Belgium, which contrasts sharply with centralized, hierarchical governing patterns inherited from the Soviet Union and which are in evidence in such European countries as France. The State of Regionalism in Europe: An AER Report, June 2010, p. 15, available at <> (accessed April 23, 2014).

[2] John Newhouse, “Europe’s Rising Regionalism,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 1997), <> (accessed April 23, 2014).

[3] Grigory Nemiria, “Regionalism: An Underestimated Dimension of State-Building,” in Ukraine: The Search for a National Identity, ed. Sharon Wolchik and Volodymyr Zviglyanich (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000).

[4] Just to give a sampling of the criteria that have been used to delineate regions, consider how historians and political scientists have identified regions. See Mykhailo Hrushevsky, History of Ukraine-Rus’: From Prehistory to the Eleventh Century (vol. 1) (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1997), esp. 7–12; Mykhailo Hrushevsky was the president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918. At that time, he proposed dividing Ukraine into 30 lands and giving 3 cities, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa, and their surrounding suburbs a special status.  N. Iakovenko, Paralel’nyi svit. Doslidzhennia z istorii uiavlenn’ ta idei v Ukraini XVI-XVII st (Kyiv, 2002); I. Isaevich, Ukraina davnia i nova. Narod, relihiia, kul’tura (L’viv, 1996); Mykola Riabchuk, Vid Malorossii do Ukraini (Kyiv, 2000); Y. Hrytsak, Dvadtsiat’ dvi Ukraiiny, in  Strasti za nacionalizmom, ed. Y. Hrytsak (Kyiv 2004): 216–28.

Using geopolitical criteria, other Ukrainian scholars have identified 11 regions: Kyiv; Northern (Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, and Kyiv oblasts); Central (Vinnytsia, Kirovohrad, Poltava, Cherkasy, Khmelnytsky); Northeastern (Sumy, Kharkiv); Northwestern (Lutsk, Riven); Dnipro (Dnipropetrovsk, Zaprizhzhya); Western (Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Ternopil); Southwestern (Zakarpaty, Chernivtsi); Southern (Mykolayiv, Odesa, Kherson); Crimea; Donetsk (Donetsk, Luhansk). See Grigory Nemiria, “Regionalism: An Underestimated Dimension of State-Building,” in Ukraine: The Search for a National Identity, ed. Sharon Wolchik and Volodymyr Zviglyanich (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000): 185.

[5] Ulrich Schmid, “Warum die Krim für Russland wichtig ist,” <> (accessed April 23, 2014).

[7] <> and <> (accessed April 23, 2014).


  1. 🕔 4:41, 02.Feb 2016


    Madam, you have totally ignored the historical role of Poland in the Ukraine, which was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for well over 400 years (14th-18th centuries); not to mention that there is a sizeable minority of people of Polish descent living there-particularly in the western regions.

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