A Concise Geography of Ukraine

With the situation in Ukraine being foremost in the mind of most of the world these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief background on the region to help better understand the conflict from a geographical perspective.

Full disclosure….although I have been a Geography professor, I have never personally been to Ukraine. But through showing you some maps and graphs with some brief explanations, I hope you will gain a new perspective on this region, which will lead you to further research on your own.

Many people remark about how simple their two color flag is. The flag itself gives you a lens into what the ecology of the region is like. The southern Steppe region has very fertile soils and it a major producer of wheat. Hence, a flag of a blue sky above with yellow wheat fields below. The picture below mirrors the colors of the flag, and is looking at the Black Sea, which is a pretty blue!

The flag colors correlate with the landscape

Climate is part of the reason for where certain types of ecosystems are found. Under the Koppen classification system, much of Ukraine is classified as a D climate, while other parts are more arid B climates.

The BSk climate in southern Ukraine has hot dry summers and cold moist winters. My hometown of Bend, Oregon has the same type of climate. The northern and western parts of Ukraine have a humid continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. Prevailing winds are westerly at that latitude, and because they are so far inland from the Atlantic Ocean, temperature ranges are much more extreme than coastal areas like France, which are moderated by the proximity to a large water body. See the map below which gives you an analogy as to where you might find locations with similar climates.

Map: Reddit

But climate alone is not the only reason for ecosystems being located where they are. Ukraine has a thick layer of very fertile soils. This is also a result of the melting of continental ice sheets from the last ice age melting in the north and the runoff from them depositing silt in the south. The main river flowing through the country, the Dnieper (pronounced NEE’ per) has its headwaters in Russia. The river flows through Belarus into Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea in the south.

Environmental zones of Ukraine

The map below shows the Physical Geography of Ukraine, much of which is a flat plain, with notable exceptions in the far west of the country. Besides being good for agriculture, the flat plains have made it easy for advancing armies to invade throughout history.

Physical Geography of Ukraine (shutter stock.com)

When looking at the region through the lens of history, it is important to realize that the present day borders of what we call Ukraine have changed many times over the last millennium. A lot of history can be explained by understanding Geography. The location of Ukraine has allowed it to be influenced over two millennia by Greece, the Mongol Invasion, the Vikings coming down the Dnieper from Novgorod, the Austria-Hungary empire, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union to name a few. Its location on the north shore of the Black Sea gave it proximity to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as well as the rise of Islam and the Ottoman Empires. It is at the crossroads between East and West. I am currently reading Serhii Plokhy’s book, “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.” If your library has it, I would recommend you read this for a comprehensive history of the region.

Take a look at the You tube map below to see how the borders of Europe have changed over the last 1000 years.

The map below shows present day population densities. The two darkest spots are the urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv. You will also see concentrations in the East and South of the country. The Crimean peninsula in the south was annexed by Russia in 2014. That was when Russian separatists in the East of the country shot down a Malaysian jet liner. I was flying over that region on that same July day on my way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Had my plane left on time from Germany and not been delayed, it could have been me that was shot down. You can see how important the control of the two major cities would be for each side.

Population density (raion.com) 1 km=.62 miles for you American readers

The map below shows where the Russians have advanced as of 3/9/22. They are trying to first take all of the land along the Sea of Azov to connect Crimea to the Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is a multi-ethnic society, with much of one’s cultural identity based in language. Both Russian and Ukrainian are Balto-Slavic languages with some similarities in origin, but different enough to base one’s identity around. The map below roughly shows where each language is predominant and helps to explain which areas are either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian nationalist.

Now compare the above linguistic map with the election map of 2010. Much of the voting mirrors the predominant language spoken. Yanukovych was a puppet of Putin. There were mass protests against his corrupt regime, leading to his ouster. The pro-Europe party talked in early 2014 about joining the EU. That precipitated Putin’s invasion and seizure of the Crimean peninsula later that year.

Finally, the graph below can give you an effect on how war affects migration rates. Look at the negative crude migration rate in 2014. Since the seizure of Crimea did not lead to full scale war at the time, many people moved back. However, the present day humanitarian crisis and horrible situation for the Ukrainian people will make this graph pale in comparison to today’s catastrophe.

demographic change over the years

These are uncertain times for all of us. I hope and pray for an acceptable resolution to the present conflict. I encourage you all to continue learning all you can about this region by reading peer reviewed documents. I also hope we can see some parallels with the cultural and political strains that Ukraine has with your own countries and work to find solutions to problems before they explode and get out of hand.

Shalom…..

3 thoughts on “A Concise Geography of Ukraine

  1. Amazing visual on changes in Europe over time! Reinforces how change is inevitable. Too bad the quest for power seems to be too.

    Like

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