Redrawing the Map of Ukraine?

Well, I thought the war scare (as I put it) between Russia and Ukraine was just that: a scare. But the war scare, alas, is now war. So far Russia seems to be winning, but we’re less than a week into Putin’s “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, so we’ll just have to see what happens. What I’d like to explore in this post is the range of possible outcomes.

In particular, it’s entirely possible the map of Ukraine will be in for some revision. The Ukrainian territories in play are marked on my map below (the original map was created by Sven Teschke of Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0); I just added the colors and subdivided some regions) in different colors:

In the event of a Russian victory, I’d expect at the very least the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea (the region in purple) to be recognized by Ukraine.

Russia recently recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk; the areas controlled by the separatists from 2015 to 2022 are shown in darkest blue in the far east of Ukraine, the extent of their territorial claim they did not de-facto control in a lighter blue.

Russia recognizing their independence is interesting, and possibly suggestive of outright annexation by Russia a la Crimea being less likely than many think; nevertheless, annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk into Russia remains a distinct possibility, and in the event of a total Russian victory it seems unlikely they will be returned to Ukraine in any case. Their independence or annexation would be recognized by the post-war Ukrainian government.

It’s still possible they will be reintegrated into Ukraine as autonomous regions, which is what Russia envisioned after 2014 with the Minsk Accords, but the very fact they recognized independence suggests that’s not what Putin has in mind. We’ll see.

The next territory of interest is in lightest blue, encompassing the rest of southern and eastern Ukraine. Most people in these regions primarily speak Russian, not Ukrainian; here Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been weak. In the pre-Euromaidan days this area was the stronghold of the pro-Russian anti-nationalist “Party of Regions”, the party of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The upshot is that if these regions were separated from the rest of Ukraine into a state aligned with Russia, or even outright annexed into Russia, Russia could probably hold onto them long-term without too much trouble. Russification of the populace could realistically be achieved by rather passive means, much like in Belarus.

In green is a territory outside Ukraine, instead being inside Moldova, but it’s another pro-Russian breakaway state: Transnistria. If Russia detaches the south and east of Ukraine (as either a breakaway state a la the Novorossiya proposal from 2014, or directly annexed to Russia), it’s possible Transnistria will be integrated. That would require provoking Moldova, but it’s a relatively small country and a non-NATO member, so such an action shouldn’t be ruled out.

These combined areas in the cool colors (purple, blue, green) are about the maximum that Russia could integrate without pushing their luck. Pushing further, we come to the yellow zone on my map: western Ukraine up to roughly the 1939 borders. I differentiate this area because it’s been suggested Russia might take control up to that boundary, leaving the areas westward as a rump Ukrainian state that couldn’t pose much of a threat even if it was rabidly Russophobic and nationalist and joined NATO and the EU.

Stopping at the yellow zone makes some amount of sense, considering that the orange zone on my map, western Ukraine, is the nationalist stronghold, is by far the most pro-Western part of the country, and is where the Ukrainian language is most commonly used. Notably, it also roughly corresponds to the area formerly controlled by Austria, rather than the Russian Empire, which might have significance if Putin’s goal is to regather the lands of the Tsar.

I separate out the red zone, the part of southwestern Ukraine corresponding with the Carpathian Mountains, because it’s a more ethnically diverse part of the country, not quite as gung-ho for the Ukrainian nationalist cause. It’s possible, though unlikely, that a Russian victory will see this part of the country be detached as a breakaway state.

The dark red zone I separate out because this part of Ukraine apparently is predominately ethnically Hungarian and speaks Hungarian; it’s possible this area might be detached as well. Since it has a long border with this area, it’s feasible for Hungary to annex this area and it could hold it indefinitely without any trouble from the local population. However, since this would require Hungary to go directly against NATO and join Russia in a dismemberment of Ukraine this option seems very unlikely. Nevertheless, it’s a sufficiently interesting possibility I’d like to include it.

Redraping the new Iron Curtain

Any rump Ukraine may well be a Russian puppet state. Nevertheless, this entails the near-inevitability of another Euromaidan breaking out in western and central Ukraine, only with more division and hatred than the last round. A possibility I haven’t seen considered much is Russia grabbing what it can realistically hold long-term in the south and east of Ukraine, cutting the rest loose as a truly independent state, which may well join NATO and the EU.

In this scenario, Putin shifts the new Iron Curtain from Donetsk and Crimea to a location much further westward, while not paying too grievous a price in terms of local opposition, and not having to deal with another Euromaidan. What he would have to deal with would be a revanchist and rabidly Russophobic state in core Ukraine, but that may well be easier to deal with than the alternatives. That might be what Putin is planning for the end of the war, though I doubt it.

What’s the most likely Future for Ukraine?

The most likely option in my view is that Ukraine remains more or less intact, without losing large amounts of territory, and accedes, under duress rather than voluntarily, to the same demands Russia has been making since 2014 and is still making today:

  1. Alignment of Ukraine’s foreign policy with Russia’s, or at least a neutral status forbidding NATO membership; see Belarus
  2. Recognition of Crimea as Russian territory
  3. Federalizing the country with autonomy given to the Donbass republics
  4. Giving Russian equal language rights with Ukrainian across the country; again, see Belarus

The most likely alternative is that Donetsk and Luhansk are either recognized as independent or are annexed by Russia instead of being reintegrated into Ukraine, with everything else remaining the same.

Detaching Crimea?

A more out-there possibility along these lines is detaching Crimea from Russia as an independent republic, perhaps as a gesture toward Ukraine as part of the peace settlement; not that they’d go for it, most likely, seeing as it’s just too strategically vital to Russia, but it’s one possibility nobody is talking about. Call it the slice-and-dice strategy: break up the more marginal region of Ukraine into many small republics instead of arraying them into one big one. The recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as separate entities might be paving the way for this, though I’d be surprised if this scenario actually happened.

Putin’s Greater Ukraine?

A much more out-there possibility is that Ukraine is turned into a puppet state, but its territory is actually expanded, taking in “Greater Ukraine”, which extends past eastern Ukraine and into what we now think of as southern Russia. For instance, look at the medium-gold and darker regions in this 1897 language map:

Map courtesy of Alex Tora of Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-JP 2.1).

Which leads to visions of Greater Ukraine’s borders like this one from 1919:

Admittedly it’s really a stretch to imagine any version of Russia, much less Putin’s, would give Ukraine more land than it already has, especially after the experiences of recent years; far more likely is shrinking Ukraine to pack its pro-Western core into as little a country as possible. Nevertheless, expanding Ukraine would serve to give the country as a whole a definite pro-Russian majority. Of course, if you’re going to go down that road you might as well go for full annexation and be done with it, with all that entails.

In any case it seems that annexation or occupation doesn’t figure front and center in whatever Putin’s planning: Russia simply doesn’t have anywhere near enough troops in this operation to hold all of Ukraine, so they have to have some other goal in mind that takes less men and materiel than a full conquest. It pretty much has to be destroying Ukraine’s military assets so Zelensky is forced to the negotiating table on Russia’s terms, or else leaving Ukraine without a viable military or any chance of joining NATO without suffering retaliation, with either option serving Russian security interests just fine.

What if Ukraine wins?

For this whole post I’ve been talking about what happens if there’s a Russian military victory. What if there’s a Ukrainian victory? Well, that scenario is considerably less interesting, because it would most likely amount to maintaining the status quo as of 2021. Maybe the best the Ukrainians could hope for is retaking the separatist-controlled parts of the Donbass. Crimea returning to Ukrainian control is extremely unlikely barring the disintegration of the Russian state, given how strategically vital it is for the Russian military, not to mention the high popularity of the annexation with the locals.

In the event of a total Ukrainian victory, Ukraine might have a chance to join the EU and NATO, though they, NATO especially, don’t seem interested in the whole idea. So Ukraine might pursue the path of Finland: armed neutrality with a strong military and fierce civilian sentiment (most likely stoked by the 2022-war victory cult that will be built up) enabling an independent foreign policy. Which is not too different from what Putin demanded in the first place, assuming he was being sincere. Hmph.

In the event of a catastrophic defeat or, especially, a prolonged and bloody war that’s also catastrophic, it’s possible a revolution will erupt or a coup will be executed in Russia, replacing Vladimir Putin with a new leader, possibly one more amenable to building bridges with the West. Russia giving up Crimea would be unlikely even in this event, but if the West and Ukraine are willing to let them have it and are otherwise feeling cooperative (big if, I know) it’s possible the path would open toward the truly pan-European alliance of my dreams, and both Ukraine and Russia would join.

Seems like a stretch, though; more likely is a deep detente of some sort as Russia nurses its economic wounds from the war, almost in a rerun of the 1990s. Which really sounds like it would suck.


The best-case scenario is the war ends very soon and Ukraine and the West agree to the four points I outline above in the “most likely” scenario, all sanctions are terminated, and the new Cold War is brought to an end, with Ukraine’s internal tensions resolved, and relations between Russia and the Western bloc becoming closer and friendlier than ever before by the end of the 2020s.

Win, lose, or draw, peace and fellowship across Europe, and by extension the world, is certainly something worth fighting for. Let us not allow the nationalist posturing of warmongers, be they Russian, Ukrainian, or other, to distract the friends of freedom and of mankind’s future from that noble goal.

One Reply to “Redrawing the Map of Ukraine?”

  1. Putin has staked his career on this invasion. He can’t back down with less than the conversion of Donetsk and Luhansk into vassal states. But if that were his only goal, he could have achieved it more efficiently and with less international outrage by simply moving troops into those areas to support their “freedom.” He’s after more, but I don’t know what exactly. He put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert, which suggests one of his main goals is to intimidate the West.

    There may be scenarios where he’s removed from office or his power curtailed, either legally or extra-legally. If that doesn’t happen, Russia will have Ukraine outgunned and will win before long. The question is what Russia will do after that.

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