Teaching the Ukrainian Crisis with Maps

In a follow up to the Current Context pieces "Ukraine and Crimea" and "Ukrainian Conflict Update", here are a few ways for you to incorporate visual sources into the classroom in order to help students grasp the economic, social, and political complexities of the Ukrainian crisis.  And, as a bonus, using maps in the classroom addresses the Common Core Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies RH 7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

Visual sources provide insight into what is at stake in Ukraine and Crimea, and the BBC has a helpful article with several such maps: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26387353.

Let’s begin with election results from the 2010 election (about halfway down the BBC article) – this map shows a stark divide between the western and eastern parts of the country, a divide that reaches back before the recent crisis.  Students may be familiar with this phenomenon from the United States, where the interior states and the South are red, while coastal states (outside of the South) are blue.  So students will likely understand that this voting split derives from the different interests and values coming out of these regions of Ukraine.  So the question is, what causes these differences in Ukraine?

A clue comes from the next map, which indicates the proportion of the population whose native language is Russian.  Students will notice that this linguistic divide coincides perfectly with the voting split.  Eastern Ukraine has considerably more ethnic Russians, who share family ties, a common religion and traditions with Russians across the border.  Not surprisingly, it is the eastern part of Ukraine that has shown the greatest interest in becoming part of Russia, with Crimea voting for annexation in March of 2014 (and accepted by Russia), and the eastern region of Donetsk voting last week for annexation to Russia.

But the following map of broader Europe tells another piece of this story – that Ukraine is situated between countries affiliated with the European Union and Russia, and this in-between location has given it political and economic ties to both its western and eastern neighbors.  In addition to a formal treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership with Russia, the Ukrainian government had recently pursued association and a free-trade agreement with the European Union.  It was President Yanukovych’s decision to break the deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia that set off the Maidan protests last fall.  The next map, on the flow of oil through the region, explains how Russian oil flows through pipelines in Ukraine on its way to Europe, a system which draws all these parties together in economic dependency.  Because the gas fields are located in eastern Ukraine, that region has enjoyed more wealth than the western portion of the country.

These maps give a quick visual explanation for the divisions undermining Ukrainian stability – divided ethnic identity, proximity to distinct and powerful entities on either side of the country, and an imbalance of wealth – and together go a long way in describing the current crisis.  As the Ukrainian elections approach on May 25, students’ understanding of such maps will give them insight into the political – and ultimately social and economic – conflicts unfolding in Ukraine.  

Image: State Flag of Ukraine carried by a protestor to the heart of developing clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. February 18, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SState_flag_of_Ukraine_carried_by_a_protester_to_the_heart_of_developing_clashes_in_Kyiv,_Ukraine._Events_of_February_18,_2014.jpg