‘Ukraine’ or ‘the Ukraine’? It’s more controversial than you think.

When speaking about Ukraine, three seemingly innocuous letters can make a huge impact: the.

In recent weeks, politicians including President Obama and Mitt Romney have used the construction "the Ukraine" while speaking about that country and Russia's recent annexation of Crimea.

(CBS News)
(CBS News)

"And unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia's intentions, the president wasn't able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you're seeing in the Ukraine," Romney said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday.

“It is important that Congress stand with us. I don’t doubt the bipartisan concern that’s been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine," Obama said earlier this month.

Placing "the" in front of Ukraine may appear to be harmless syntax, but the word has a long, controversial political and social history.

"I don’t want to say it's derogatory, but it’s putting it in a subordinate position," said William B. Taylor Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. "When you talk about 'the Ukraine,' that suggests that you really don’t think that Ukraine is a sovereign independent country."

Historically, the name Ukraine is thought to have derived from a Russian word that roughly means "borderlands" or "on the border," said Donna Farina, a professor of multicultural education at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, N.J.

When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it was referred to as "the Ukraine" because it was a region in a larger country, according to linguists and historians. It would be the equivalent of saying "the Northeast" or "the Rockies" in the United States, said Michael Flier, a professor of Ukrainian philology at Harvard University.

Russians used the construction "na Ukraine," roughly "in the Ukraine," while it was part of the Soviet Union, he said.

Shortly after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it asked Russia to stop referring to it as "na Ukraine" and instead switch to  "v Ukraine," which basically means "in Ukraine" as opposed to "in the Ukraine."

David Lightfoot, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said "the" appears before independent countries whose names are plural, like the United States or the United Kingdom, as well as the Netherlands, a "confused title" that actually refers to the low countries.

Growing up in Great Britain, Lightfoot remembers calling Argentina "the Argentine" and Lebanon "the Lebanon" before they gained independence.

"My sense was the the forms were archaic forms that would refer to the area before it became an independent country," he said, noting it is more of a British way of speaking.

Taylor, however, thinks using "the" is "more of a Russian construct as opposed to a Ukrainian construct or an international construct."

Russian and Ukrainian are distinct but similar Slavic languages. Both are spoken in Ukraine, although Ukrainian is the official language. Flier compares them to the relationship between Spanish and Italian or Portuguese.

Crimea is often referred to as "the Crimea," a construction to which Taylor, Flier and others do not object.

"I've heard both," Flier said, mostly because Crimea is a region of a country. "It’s like the Northeast. I’m going to the South. It doesn’t bother people."

Farina and her husband, a native Russian speaker, said they perused Russian media Web sites and the usage varied.

Obama has since dropped "the" and refers to the country as Ukraine.

But for others, old habits may just be hard to break, even though it is a political issue.

"It’s generational, but for Ukranians it is a political issue," Farina said. But even she has trouble remembering.

"Depending on the age of the speaker, it’s very hard to break that habit," Farina said. "I still usually say 'na Ukraine,' or 'in the Ukraine' even though I know it’s not the right way to do it."

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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