Is the Crimea annexation and the current conflict in Ukraine a result of internal ethnic divide or is it fuelled by Russian elite’s geopolitical motive?

27 July, 2018

International Affairs




The aim of this paper is to find an unbiased analysis into the ongoing Ukraine Crisis, to not come to a conclusion, but  at the very least provide an analytical understanding of the different actors who played a part in it and how they benefitted. Several narratives have come under the scrutiny of scholars, and this essay is an attempt to, not merely state but, probe the roots of these narratives. Through the use of theories of ethnic studies the reasons for the conflict, the role of actors will be studied. Thus, the essay will first provide two hypothesis. In the course of the writing, I strive to explain the narratives as to understand the motivations behind the actions of the actors, primarily, Russia. It is not the intention of the paper to come to conclusions as I feel the ongoing crisis lacks a particular culprit. I also believe that it is imperative to understand motivations in a post conflict setup, as to comprehend the backdrop of the conflict to assist in building perpetual peace.     




This paper will primarily deal with two fundamental hypothesis and through the course of the paper, these hypothesis will be discussed. The author, however, is not under the impression that only one single narrative can be held true or studied in isolation. The two hypothesis will serve as perspectives to the various events involved. 


HYPOTHESIS A: The conflict in Ukraine is predominantly an issue of ethnicity and lack of a national identity, which has been prevalent since its independence of 1991.

HYPOTHESIS B: The conflict arose because of Russian elite’s geopolitical motive.




Russia’s historical links with the Crimean peninsula goes back to Catherine the Great[1]. In 1954, Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided that Ukraine would be with Crimea given that Russia’ Black Sea fleet remained at Sevastopol under lease. In 1994, a memorandum was signed protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine[2].


Ukraine has a long history of being dominated by foreign powers and has been independent for a short period. It has for centuries been subjugated by Russians. The country has been divided between Ukrainians who see Ukraine as part of Europe and those who find themselves intrinsically connected to Russia. However, Ukraine has various regions and a number of ethnic minorities of which Russians are most prominent. The parts of Ukraine where Russians have had majority is the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kharkov. The western regions have a mix of Hungarian population and other minorities such as Poles, Belarusians, Jews and Bulgarians in the south who have been Ukrainians for decades(MARPLES, 2015). It is this dynamic mix in the Ukrainian state that makes divergence internal politics inevitable. 


On November 21, 2013, anti-government[3]protest began in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev which toppled off the current crisis. Then President, Yanukovych had rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union, taking a billion bailout from Russia instead. The Western Ukraine wanted the deal with EU for two reasons; it would bring peace to the troubled economy and it would be a symbol for closer ties with Europe as culturally and politically desired. The deeper reason for the protests were that many Ukrainians saw Yanukovych as a corrupt, autocratic leader who was an instrument in the hands of Russia. 


To prevent the protest from escalating, the government made some imprudent decisions by sending Berkut internal forces to the regions of protest and curbing fundamental rights of speech and assembly , which only worsened the situation. By February 2014, the protest took such a drastic turn[4]that lead to the President to disappear, and the protestors to take control of the Presidential administration buildings. Another grave blunder by the Parliament was to ban Russian as the second language, causing a wave of anger in Russian speaking regions. This created an opportunity for Russia to enter Ukrainian premises in support of their Russian minorities. 


In late February, a few days after Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President was ousted from power, unidentified gunmen in combat uniforms appear outside the Crimean airport and begin to seize government buildings. The mass in Crimea rally in support for the ousted President and call to secede from Ukraine. The bands of gunmen rapidly start growing and it becomes evident they are Russian military forces, who bring the entire peninsula under military occupation. On 16thMarch, 2014, the region inordinately vote to become a part of Russia when called for a referendum[5]. Strategically, Crimea is of high importance to Russia as it holds Russia’s large military base and from keeping NATO away from East. 


Soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Separatist rebels began emerging in eastern Ukraine. They seized towns of Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk, in the eastern region known as Donbas which were chiefly Russian speaking. It was in protest of the toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, who was from the eastern region himself. Learning from the preceding in Crimea, the eastern region also rallied for independence. In retrospect, the sense of disenfranchisement in the eastern region is real and the rebels do have indigenous organic support. It is this fight that has escalated to the undeclared conflict between Russia and the Russian minorities on one hand and Ukraine in another. The Ukrainian government for the initial months was afraid to make a move after Putin made a statement that if Ukraine got aggressive then he would blame Ukraine for the deaths and invade to protect the Russian speaking citizens. 


When confronted, Russia denied all support to the rebel occupation in the East and also agreed to de-escalate the crisis in the Geneva talk. The world leaders agreed to dissolve the illegal military formations[6].


After the insincere talks and rising rebellion, the Ukrainian government decided to release an offensive to drive out the rebels. However, matter worsened when a Malaysian Flight MH17, on 17thJuly was shot down[7]. Ukraine redoubled its attacks except, Russia decided to overtly invade the region with military troops by mid-August. Russia denied invasion although evidence suggested otherwise[8]. 


The conflict has intensified tremendously. Since 2014, many international actors have gotten themselves tangled in the middle of Ukraine and Russia. Germany and France, in February 2105, decide to craft a ceasefire agreement with Ukraine and Russia after USA considers supplying lethal aid to Ukraine. European leaders oppose to arming Ukraine’s forces so as to not ignite the conflict further. By 2016, the war spirals to its worse and millions of lives are affected in the conflict zone[9]. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, roughly 31,600 people have either been killed or injured[10], a report by High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Husseinstates in March, 2016. The conflict hit an all-time low by the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, when Ukraine carries out missile launches near Crimea and Trump comes to power in USA, hinting to approve the Russian annexation of Crimea. 




The conflict setting was an unbiased narration of the conflict, serving as an introduction to what the main aim of the paper is; to inquire into the narratives by learning about the roots of these narratives and use models of ethnic studies to study the roles of the actors involved. 

Scholars have spoken about the role of ethnicity, politics, geo-strategies as causes to the conflict. The idea of this discourse is not to revisit the same arguments but help supplement and find authenticity of these reasons. I attempt to show how elites, through the use of media, unbarred the anxiety of identity crisis, using it as a tool for mass mobilization.

Ethnicity plays an undeniable role in armed conflict. Max Webber, pioneer of the study of ethnicity, defines it as a collective group with similar cultural characteristics. The meaning and usage of ethnicity has been dynamic and fluid. Horowitz understands  the concept of ethnicity as a differentiation between individuals and groups on the basis of identifying markers such as colour, language, or religion(DonaldL.Horowitz, 1985). This definition, which is more widely accepted now, denotes the high potential ethnicity has to drive conflict in relation to other identities such as social class or political affiliation[11]because they lack the clear boundaries of ethnicity. Groups build trust and facilitate coordination through “distinct sense of difference, owing to culture and descent” (Moynihan, 1975), but these factors make cooperation between ethnic groups inherently difficult. 

There is a vantage point of some scholars who forward the idea that the Ukraine crisis developed as a consequence of existing divides that aggravated the differences between the ethnic Russians and the Ukrainians. The underlying structure of the state has been analysed by many scholars, one being David Marples, who focuses on the ethnic and social composition of Ukraine and the existing voting patterns. Many studies suggest that ethnically divided societies often confront voting and party systems based on ethnicity since it is easier for leaders to mobilize on shared identity. Paul R.. Brass, an instrumentalist, advanced the idea that ethnicities are transformed, for political power and economic benefits, between the competing elites. Industrialization, in some cases, states Brass, tend to proceed unevenly and benefit some groups more than others and political elites find it to their advantage to cooperate with external authorities and use culture and language in order to enhance power (Brass, 1991).

The conflict in the east can be seen as a rational outcome of the deep cultural and political division in Ukraine. Moreover, Russian advocacy has been to promote the “artificial nature” of the state which was destined to collapse. There has been a rampant crisis with regards to the lack of strong “national identity” in the nation, which was to fill the gap after the Soviet fall out. The argument on national identity can be explained best by V.P Gagnon who argues that ethno-nationalist feelings are created and not predisposed. It is a tool in the hands of the threatened elites to mobilize masses and accepts  the role elites play in instigating conflict. He states that ‘ethnic cleavages’ are spurred by the elites to establish a ‘domestic political context’. It can then be defined as a venture developed by the political and cultural elites and implemented by means of education, media and symbolic politics; a strong and stable national identity provides social cohesion, helps to integrate minorities and thus guarantees territorial integrity and national security. Democratic consolidation, the reasoning goes, cannot be achieved without national unity based on a shared historical memory. The developments suggest that Ukraine's ruling elite failed to accomplish its task of forging a strong national identity and that this failure has resulted in a political crisis, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the armed conflict.

National identities in the Ukraine-Russia borderlands have moved and crystallized in reaction to the significant political events, while internal and external political actors have mobilised history and symbolism to promote their agendas. It would be unwise to understand the pro-Russian irredentism in Crimea, the separatist in the Donbass region and the political polarization only through the internal growth and failures of Kyiv’s identity politics. Nationalism, anti-West hatred and nostalgia in Russia have offered alternative identities to the Russian speaking population of eastern and southern Ukraine. Previously, the elites who found themselves in position used symbolism to promote only an idea of national identity. The yellow-blue flag, the coat of arms and the anthem which was borrowed from the Ukrainian tradition of national liberation struggle was made the official symbols of post-Soviet Ukraine despite the resistance of the orthodox Communists. Moreover, the normative vision of Ukrainian history which reduced "the nation" to ethnic Ukrainians was pushed to become the central element of the civic education of the younger generations in early 1990s. However, the Soviet Ukrainian identity was not taken apart. nation. As ethno-national and linguistic boundaries between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians were “blurred and permeable, nationalization in Ukraine” worked primarily to reshape cultural practices, loyalties, and identities, thereby in effect redefining and enlarging the 'core nation'" (Brubaker 2011, p. 1785).[12]

However, the 2004 presidential campaign and Orange Revolution unbarred the dilemma of identity politics and regional cleavages[13]. With the election of Yanukovych as president in 2010 the Party of Regions (POR) failed to deliver a coherent identity politics on the national level as it had little to offer to central and western Ukraine. Instead, it continued to appeal to its core electorate, cultivating a negative identity. The Euromaidan in 2013, turned into massive protests, re-activated the old phobias of radical Ukrainian nationalism in the east and south. The pro-governmental media in Ukraine and the Russian media presented the mass protests as an explosion of radical nationalism and later as a "fascist putsch". The rhetoric fell on well-prepared ground, namely the old clichés and stereotypes cultivated over years by the Party of Regions and their ideological allies, the Communists, in response to the Orange Revolution. In sum, internal political constraints, the ideological polarization of the post-Soviet Ukrainian elites and strong incentives for the political use of historical memory and the language issue in electoral politics prevented the emergence of a strong national identity in Ukraine and led to a deepening political conflict (Zhurzhenko, 2014). The stated narratives above lead to a conclusion that it was in reality regionalism, played through a perceived idea of ethnicity by the political elites that was the true cause of divide in the state. 

The above rhetoric can be studied through the application of ethnic theories, on nationalism, of ‘ethno symbolism’ where the elites treat ‘the other’ as a negative entity, glorify history, use symbols in forms of language, colour and flagship to promote ideas of nationalism and instil in the people a unified idea of their community. This school of ‘Ethno-symbolism’ was propagated by instrumentalist like Paul R. Brass and Anthony Smith, whose work draws on the pre-existing history of a group creating bonds of solidarity among members based on shared memories, myths and traditions (Smith, 1991:15). The school is of the view that ‘power is often immeasurably increased by the living presence of traditions embodying memories, symbols, myths and values from much earlier epochs in the life of a population, community or area’ (Smith,1991: 20).It was used by both the internal actors in Ukraine i.e.; The local Elites and external actors i.e.; Russia, which will be discussed below. Then, media comes to play a vital role in promoting the agendas of these elites, which will also be further discussed.


Even after the disintegration of Soviet Union, Russia remained more than a neighbour for majority of the Ukrainians. Family ties, labour migration waves, a common marketplace of media and the leverage of Russian culture made very difficult to develop a clear Ukrainian identity, especially in the South and east. In 1997, Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship and Partnership was signed which officiated the territorial integrity of Ukraine as an independent state within the boundaries of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. What Moscow had not anticipated was the Orange revolution and the failure of the ruling elite. This failure changed Moscow’s stance and predetermined its reaction to Euromaidan. Following the revolution Moscow increased its support for pro-Russian groups, promoting anti-NATO protests, defending the Russian language. Russia utilised media so perfectly by representing Ukraine as divided nation, an simulated state with incompatible communities. The Russian media attempted to undermine the 2014 protests in Kyiv, which had begun as pro-European. Russkiy mir, a soft power project of Russia, which essentially means the Russian World, was employed as a way to associate the discourse of shared past, common values, culture and history with Russian nationalism and reduce European values to issues of sexual minority. Russia’s political elites saw Ukraine as a part of their country’s identity and hence relied on national myths to devise narratives to bind Ukraine to Russia. With the annexation of Crimea, the concept of Russkiy mir transformed to Russian nationalism which equated to Russians and Russian-speakers, denying the existence of Ukraine. Russian media invented the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ which implied that the southern and eastern region of Ukraine was a part of Russia. It is a representation of the construction of a new geopolitical reality. However, Russia even though being an external factor was able to undermine the state and its nation-building because the state was weak, corrupt and spilt by the ruling elite.

Through the course of the paper, we have established that the lack of national identity in Ukraine, acted as a catalyst for the divide fuelled by Kremlin. 

The penultimatesection of the paper will probe into the geo-political roots reasons and dynamics for the Russian intervention. Ukraine has special importance to Kremlin because of its close links to Russia in the military field. Russia is heavily dependent on Ukraine’s Aerospace and Defense industry. Ukraine’s imminent position will influence Russia’s long-term geostrategic orientation. Without Ukraine, the Eurasian empire of Russia will come to an end. If, however, Kremlin can regain control over Ukraine, Russia will regain its wherewithal to become an imperial state, expanding from Europe to Asia (F. Stephen Larrabee, 2015). Russia’s concern was that if Ukraine signed the Association Agreement with EU, it would hamper the prospect of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union, a dream of Putin. This was an important catalyst for the inception of the conflict.


Russia was also threatened with Kyiv wanting  to maintain closer ties with NATO, which would have hampered the naval power and access to ports. Through its Crimean bases, Russia wanted to dominate the Black Sea as their ideology has always been to depend on itself for its defense. Another reason was that Crimea had plans to establish a partnership with America to develop its natural gas reserves. If this would have planned out, Russia would lose its largest customer. 


More importantly, Putin’s deadlock over Ukraine spurred his popularity by 80% in Russia. He played on the grievances of the Russians in Ukraine who did not want to be a part of Europe to further his greed. Putin’s government’s identity is linked to the idea of ‘great power status’. The American missile defense plans, with bases in Poland and Czech Republic intimidated Russia’s nuclear power. Then, the push to join NATO  seriously challenged Russia’s position in the region. With the EU’s Association Agreement, it was a serious blow at Putin’s face and the security of the state, acting as the tipping point for Russia. 



In this narrative, the case of Ukraine can be perfectly studied by a theorist, V.P. Gagnon. In his book argues that ethno-symbolist feelings are created not predisposed. It is a tool in the hands of the threatened elites to mobilize masses. These elites appeal to the masses with the falsified or manipulated threat from externals and coerce them into believing that their collective existence is threatened. This was what Russia did by recreating the fear of ‘fascist putsch’. Then, media becomes indispensable. It becomes very important for elites to have control, if only partially, over the media houses. The Russian media downplayed the 2014 uprising as a play of the West. They also created the concept of Novorossiya to build an ethnic link and draw on the sentiments of the Russians in Ukraine. 

The primary goal of the paper has been to utilise the theories and concepts of ethnic conflict argued by scholars in tandem with the Ukraine crisis. There have been several limitations to the paper. The role West played in fuelling the conflict has been undermined. However, it keeping in mind the aim of the paper, which was see the conflict from different narratives. In this last section, I accept there may have been a lapse in impartiality. This is because, even while trying to re-count the argument on there being a natural divide in ethnicity and it being the direct cause of the conflict, I was attempting to establish how the elites for their, political motives drove the conflict on ethnic lines. 




o   MARPLES, D. R. (2015, MARCH 10). Ethnic and Social Composition of Ukraine’s Regions and Voting Patterns. Retrieved from E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS:


o   DonaldL.Horowitz. (1985). Ethnic Groups in Conflict.Berkeley University of California Press. Moynihan, G. &. (1975).


o   PETRO, N. N. (n.d.). Understanding the Other Ukraine: Identity and Allegiance in Russophone Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives.


o   Zhurzhenko, T. (2014). A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis. Die Ukraine-Krise, 249-267.


o   Brass, P. R. (1991). Ethnic Groups and Ethnic Identity formation. Theories of Ethnicity.


o   F. Stephen Larrabee, P. A. (2015). The Geopolitical Roots and Dynamics of the Ukrainian Crisis. In The Ukrainian Crisis and European Security.


o   BBC NEWS. (2016, AUGUST 12). Ukraine crisis: What's going on in Crimea?


o   BBC NEWS. (2016, AUGUST). Crimea tension: What is Russia's end game? . MOSCOW.


o   Michael McFaul, S. S. (2014). Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 6, 167-178.


o   Studzin?ska, Z. (2015). How Russia, Step by Step, Wants to Regain an Imperial Role in the Global and European Security System. Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, 21-42.


o   Mearsheimer, J. J. (2014). The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin. COUNCIL ON FOREIGN REALTIONS.


o   V.P. Gagnon, J. (1994-95). Nationalism and International Conflict: the Case of Serbia.


[1]Russia conquered southern Ukraine and Crimea, taking them from the Ottoman Empire. 


[2]In 1994 Budapest Memorandum was signed between USA, Russia, Ukraine where even Britain agreed not to threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. They also pledged never to use economic coercion to subordinate Ukraine to their own interest.


[3]The protest was named ‘Euromaidan’, as a symbol to fight which was about Europe and because it happened in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)


[4]On 20thFebruary, 2014, Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years. At least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, reports by BBC.


[5]Crimea's secession referendum on joining Russia is backed by 97% of voters and on 18thMarch President Putin signs a bill to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation.


[6]USA, Ukraine, Russia and the EU foreign policy chief, meet in Geneva and agree upon dissolving the rebel groups, adding that there would be an amnesty for all anti-government protesters under the agreement, and talk of "inclusivity" - possibly a suggestion that Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine might be granted more autonomy, which is expected to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)


[7]A civilian airline, with 298 people was shot down near the village of Grabove in rebel- held territory in the eastern region. 


[8]NATO satellite imagery spotted Russian artillery crossing the border from the eastern side, videos were leaked of Russian tanks crashing through the region of Donbass.


[9]United Nations warns that Ukraine's prolonged stalemate is causing grief and isolation among millions living in the conflict zone


[10]The report shows that between November 16, 2015, and February 15, 2016, 78 civilian casualties were recorded in eastern Ukraine, bringing the estimated casualty figures since the beginning of the conflict to more than 30,000. That includes at least 9,160 killed and 21,000 injured. The figures include civilians, Ukrainian military personnel and members of armed groups. 


[11]Stathis Kalyvas, “Ethnic Defection in Armed Conflict,” Comparative Political Studies 41/8 (2008) ,p.1044, states that while one can change one’s political affiliation, ethnicity is seen as being “uniquely sticky.”


[12]Ethnic Russians faced no discrimination and this paved why Russian ethnic nationalism was more marginalized than the Ukrainian. The majority of Russophones were comfortable in combining political loyalty to Ukraine with their Russian local identities. 


[13]Popular clichés about the fascist threat posed by the nationalist Galicia and the notion of a de-nationalised Donbass with Soviet identity and criminal mentality poisoned the public discourse for the coming years.