On April 17, as foreign ministers from the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine struck a deal to ease mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s strategy for the region -- “federalism” or, more likely, partition -- seemed to win out.

The agreement itself quickly fell through. Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine ignored the statement’s requirements to disarm and return occupied spaces to what the announcement vaguely called their “legitimate owners.” But symbolically, the accord affirmed Russia’s ability to set the agenda for the conflict in Ukraine and accepted the country’s de facto annexation of Crimea. It also granted legitimacy to a Russian-led “partition-disguised-as-federalism” solution for the Ukrainian crisis and thus laid the groundwork for similar Russian behavior in Ukraine’s eastern reaches. 

If the Russian plan does succeed, it is an open question what the new Ukraine would look like. The Russian justification for Crimea’s annexation was a need to protect a besieged Russian Crimean minority. Of course, there are lots of ethnic and linguistic minorities living in lots of countries around the world; if borders corresponded to ethnicity, European countries such as Switzerland or Spain would cease to exist as we know them. But if we suspend reality for the sake of argument and buy, for a moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument, there are still three possible futures for Ukraine.


In the first scenario, Ukrainian regions with a majority of ethnic Russians would become part of Russia, either as full members of the Russian Federation, as was the case in Crimea, or as autonomous regions within Ukraine that have strong alliances with Russia, as in Georgian Abkhazia since 2008.

In this scenario, Russia could not lay claim to any Ukrainian district except Crimea, where 58 percent of residents identified themselves as ethnically Russian in the last reliable census, held in 2001. In all other districts -- including in those in which pro-Russian separatists have occupied government buildings and led protests -- ethnic Russians are a minority. In Luhansk district, only 39 percent of the population claims Russian ethnicity -- a sizable minority to be sure, but still a minority. In Donetsk district, the number was 38 percent. And only two others -- out of 24 total -- have significant ethnic Russian presences: Kharkiv (26 percent) and Zaporizhia (25 percent).

The Russian population might be small in real terms, but urban-rural demographics have amplified the pro-Russian voice. The ethnic Russian population is centered in the cities, whereas the ethnic Ukrainian population is centered in the countryside. Protests, which typically take place in cities, are thus generally pro-Russian. In the city of Luhansk, a group calling itself “the Army of the Southeast” captured the region’s security headquarters on April 6; police cleared the group a week later, but Luhansk remains tense as pro-Russian protesters demand a Crimean-style referendum before the May 25 presidential elections. Similar patterns have played out in Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk, and Slavyansk in the Donetsk district. Support for joining Russia is not as widespread as these protests would suggest, though. According to a recent poll by the Donetsk Institute of Social Research and Policy Analysis, in Donetsk, a large majority (66 percent) wants to live in a united Ukraine and rejects joining Russia.

Given the ethnic breakdown of Ukraine’s south and east, the ethnic-state scenario would not play out in Russia’s favor. Russian authorities are aware of that; if the eastern districts looked more like Crimea, they would likely have followed the Crimean path a month ago.


Since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Russian media have used the term “Russian” to refer to both Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians. That is a clever strategy because Ukraine is home to far more Russophones than ethnic Russians. In Luhansk district, 75 percent of the population is native Russian-speaking according to the 2001 census; in Donetsk district, that figure is 69 percent; and in Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, it is almost half. Unlike an ethnic Russian state, which would stop at Crimea, a Russophone state carved out of what is now Ukraine would stretch all the way to the Moldovan and Romanian borders, including the entire Black Sea coast.

But there is a problem: maps that neatly divide Ukraine into Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions are misleading for two reasons. First, the data on which such maps are based, the 2001 census, is outdated when it comes to language if not ethnicity. It does not reflect the language choices of younger Ukrainians, who belong to the first generation to grow up in post-Soviet Ukraine, attended schools taught in Ukrainian, and were the most active group in the Euromaidan protests. Second, as Leo Krasnozhon, assistant professor at Loyola University, has pointed out, the 2001 census did not ask respondents if they spoke a second language at home or for work. Most Ukrainians, including many in the pro-Russian camp, are bilingual. This should not be surprising given that Ukrainian and Russian are closely related and that older generations who grew up in the Soviet era still learned Ukrainian in school. 

Kiev is a prime example of the generational language shift. In 1991, when I lived in Ukraine, the city was completely Russified. By 2008, when I returned for work, I still heard Russian more often than Ukrainian, but the generational change was already clear: young people spoke Ukrainian more often than the middle-aged. As of 2014, the baristas in Kiev’s many cafes are just as likely to greet patrons in Ukrainian as in Russian. It is also common to hear a conversation in which one person is speaking Ukrainian and the other is speaking Russian.

Bilingualism and generational differences complicate the neat picture of a geographically and linguistically divided Ukraine. A map reflecting primary language use, as opposed to native language, would likely resemble Swiss cheese -- there would be pockets of Russian speakers in predominantly Ukrainian-speaking regions and pockets of Ukrainian speakers in predominantly Russian-speaking regions. It is true that using language as the rationale for division would play in Russia’s favor, but it would be messy. Russian authorities are well aware of this, which may explain why Russia has held off invasion for this long. 

As The Economist recently suggested, moreover, even a language-based state might not satisfy the Russian bear.


A photo that was recently leaked on the Twitter feed of the Euromaidan’s PR wing revealed a third possible scenario. The photo, allegedly a fax found in the central office of Ukraine’s Communist Party, shows Ukraine’s east and south divided into four autonomous republics: Donetsk Republic in the east, Crimea Republic, New Russia Republic in the south (Odessa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, and the western half of Dnipropetrovsk), and Dnipropetrovsk-Slobdzhansk Republic in north-central Ukraine (Kharkiv, Poltava, Chernihiv, Sumy, and the eastern parts of Dnipropetrovsk, Cherkasy, and Kiev districts). There have been rumors of similar maps circulating in the Kremlin. There is no way to authenticate the whispers, but it is likely that such documents do exist.

Such a division would cut the city of Kiev in half, making it the Berlin of the twenty-first century. No wall would be necessary. The mighty Dnieper that runs through Kiev’s center would be a natural geographic divide.

How realistic is this scenario? Putin himself provided insight into Russia’s intentions in Ukraine when he used the term Novorossiya (New Russia) to describe the Ukrainian southeast in his televised appearance on April 17 -- the same day the Geneva agreement was released. Novorossiya is a term long buried in Russia’s imperial history. It refers to lands once conquered by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. Tellingly, pro-Russian anti-Maidan protesters in Odessa have started using this label themselves.

This third scenario might seem ludicrous, but so has much of Russian behavior in recent months. And there are signs that things are already heading this way. For one, pro-Russian anti-Maidan protests, such as the ones in Dontesk and Luhansk, are spreading further west towards Kiev. The protesters claim to be Ukrainian citizens who do not accept the legitimacy of the government in Kiev. Meanwhile, an ideology of irredentism -- a return to a Great Russian nation -- is stirring pro-Russian sentiments in previously calm regions. In Odessa, a predominantly Russian-speaking city known for its seaside promenades and locals’ carefree mentality, pro-Russian activists are organizing rallies on a daily basis. Novorossiya is their rallying call. Finally, Putin has implicitly confirmed his plans for a future Novorossiya; the Russian military presence in the eastern regions, although still sloppily hidden, has become more difficult to deny. 

Western powers have also done their own part in making this ludicrous scenario more imaginable. By signing the Geneva statement, they failed to stop the conflict’s escalation and set a precedent for the West’s acceptance of Russia’s disregard for international law.

The Geneva negotiations could have taken a different route. Western countries could have presented a united statement to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov detailing Russia’s infractions of international law. Of course, Lavrov would never have signed such a statement, but a more assertive Western response could have reset the current pattern of the Ukrainian crisis, in which Russia sets the agenda and the West reacts. At least in that scenario, the West could have gained the upper hand. Instead, all it has now is a failed peace accord. Meanwhile, Russia has the West’s compliance in writing. 

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  • ALINA POLYAKOVA is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, University of Bern. From 2009 to 2013, she was a doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • More By Alina Polyakova