With these rapidly unfolding events in mind, it is important to ground-truth the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state vis-à-vis its easternmost territories. Here we will take eastern Ukraine to mean the five oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia. When we examine the ethno-territorial evolution of the region, it is clear that eastern Ukraine is now and has for centuries been Ukrainian ethnic territory, by which I mean lands where ethnic Ukrainians are at least a plurality, if not a majority, of the population.
Maps are tools we employ to describe physical phenomena and the imprint of human society and culture, politics and economic activity on the ground from place to place. Political maps in particular are used to depict the manner in which geographic space is divided into entities at various levels in political-administrative hierarchies, most importantly sovereign states. What the casual observer often fails to recognize is that political maps are highly dynamic, especially in some parts of the world. For example, a political map of Central and Eastern Europe published as recently as 1991 is now virtually useless. The current map of Ukraine itself was most recently configured in 1954 with the addition of Crimea following large-scale changes to western Ukraine at the end of World War II with the annexation of lands from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania by the victorious Soviet Union. Ukraine at the time was, of course, one of the constituent Soviet Socialist Republics of the USSR, a nominal federation of ethnically based entities. When the USSR was established in the early 1920s, the concept was to delimit the larger republics and their subordinate ethnic units according to the ethnic settlement patterns at the time. Although that process was by no means pristine, and in places faced a very complex ethnic geography, it engaged legions of ethnographers and field workers to draw the boundaries. One of the results was the creation of the Ukrainian SSR as the eponymous Ukrainian homeland, whose eastern borders with the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (now the Russian Federation) were established at that time and which have remained unchanged right through independence in 1991 and to this day.
In 1926, the Soviet government conducted its first national population census, and the data from it provide us with a benchmark with which to describe the social geography of the fledgling Ukrainian SSR. Among other things, the 1926 enumeration asked people to self-identify their ethnicity (the best method to determine that), and the results, when re-configured from the administrative units used then into the oblasts used today, allow us to ascertain the ethnic composition of these units over time. In 1926, ethnic Ukrainians made up almost 73 percent of the combined populations of the five units of eastern Ukraine, whereas ethnic Russians accounted for about 19 percent (relatively more in Donetsk and Luhansk, less in the other three oblasts). Thus, it is evident that eastern Ukraine was indeed ethnic Ukrainian territory with, of course, a variety of ethnic minorities. In fact, it appears from the 1926 data that the lands with large ethnic Ukrainian populations actually extended across the Ukraine-Russia border, with some 2.7 million ethnic Ukrainians living in the five Russian oblasts bordering Ukraine to the East (Bryansk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh and Rostov); in Rostov Oblast alone, ethnic Ukrainians accounted for more than 40 percent of the population in 1926.
Owing to a surge of ethnic Russian in-migration before and after World War II and population losses among Ukrainians and many of the ethnic minorities (in particular Jews and Crimean Tatars) in the interwar and World War II periods, the proportion of Russians in the oblasts of eastern Ukraine increased. Figures from the last Soviet census in 1989 reveal that the ethnic Russian component of eastern Ukraine’s population had increased to 36 percent; again, the lure was primarily jobs in the rapidly expanding coal and metallurgical complexes in the region. The ethnic Ukrainian share for eastern Ukraine dropped to 58 percent over this period. Importantly however, the first post-Soviet census count in Ukraine in 2001 showed a dramatic decrease in the number of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine — probably through a combination of low natural increase and changing self-identification from Russian to Ukrainian — and a growth in the numbers of Ukrainians, such that the Russian proportion of the region’s population dropped to just under 30 percent and the Ukrainian share grew to 66 percent. Thus, since independence, eastern Ukraine has become more Ukrainian. That is evident in the accompanying map, which shows the plurality ethnic groups in all of Ukraine’s counties and municipalities as of the 2001 census, with only a tiny handful of units where ethnic Russians are the most numerous group.
Assessing the ethnic situation in eastern Ukraine becomes more complicated by the use of figures and maps showing “Russian speakers” (e.g., the New York Times Web site) instead of persons who identify themselves as ethnic Russians. The reason for this is that many ethnic Ukrainians declare to census and survey takers that Russian is their primary language. As a practical matter, the majority of Ukrainian citizens, including most ethnic Russians, are at least functional in either Ukrainian or Russian, but the language issue is politically radioactive and somehow has become a surrogate for the much more primordial ethnic identity described above. The inference is then made that an ethnic Ukrainian who speaks Russian as a primary language is somehow less “Ukrainian,” and perhaps less loyal to the Ukrainian state, when in practice there have been good reasons historically for Ukrainians (and other former non-Russian citizens of the USSR) to use the Russian language; Russian was, during the Soviet period, the lingua franca of the USSR, and many individuals adopted it as a means of advancing in Soviet society, where knowledge of Russian was essential to career progression. Likewise it would be wrong to claim that Russian speakers in Ukraine need protection by Russia, as state-controlled media in Russia would have us believe.
In conclusion, there should be no credence given to any assertions that there is some historically ethnic Russian territory embedded in eastern Ukraine that ought to be protected or annexed by Moscow. Having said that, it must also be recognized that both historically and presently, the population of Ukraine has included large numbers of ethnic minorities, especially in some specific parts of the country, and especially ethnic Russians, and there are compelling moral and geopolitical reasons for insuring that all ethnic minorities in Ukraine are guaranteed the full rights of citizenship and are not disadvantaged politically, socially or economically. One hopes that any new government in Kiev understands this and by its actions obviates any concerns that Russia or any other country might have about the long-term peace and stability of this large and vitally important country.