The crisis in the Ukraine spotlights the relationships of peoples, places, and governments in the often elusive and illusory concept of the nation-state. (More)

Framing the Ukraine, Part I: People, Places, and Governments

This week Morning Feature considers the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. Today we begin with core concepts of international relations: peoples, places, and governments. Tomorrow we’ll ask whether the Ukrainian crisis echoes the 19th century, when Britain and Russia struggled to dominate southwest Asia in “the great game.” Thursday we’ll see whether post-Soviet Russia today echoes post-Imperial Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Friday we’ll explore whether this crisis echoes the Cold War. Saturday we’ll conclude with the limits of historical frames and the need to assess and respond to the present, rather than the past.

A primer on terms

Americans typically use the words “nation” and “country” interchangeably, and the word “state” in reference to our 50 states. But in the language of international relations – or IR – the words “nation” and “state” have technical meanings that help us better understand the crisis in the Ukraine.

  • Nation – In IR, a nation is a people who share a political identity. Nations were traditionally viewed in terms of “ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, or other commonalities.” However, those links are neither necessary nor sufficient for nationhood. In practical terms, the question is whether a people believe their shared identity as “Americans” or “Chinese” or “Ukrainians” matters more than their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and/or cultural differences.
  • State – In IR, a state is a political community with defined borders and a government that claims final legislative authority and a monopoly on the use of force within its borders. In practice, neither the legislative authority nor the monopoly on the use of force is always absolute.
  • Nation-State – a nation-state is simply a people who have a state. The term is often used interchangeably with “country” to include multi-nation-states.
  • Multi-nation-state – this is a state comprised of two or more nations, such as Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), Spain (whose designated nationalities include Andalusia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia), and the Ukraine (whose nationalities include Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Moldovans, and Russians).
  • Multi-state-nation – this is a nation whose people comprise the majority or large minorities in two or more states, such as Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, and Russians.
  • Autonomy – this is a condition of self-governance, ranging in scope from complete independence as a sovereign nation-state to limited local rule within and subject to a larger nation-state.

The ‘ideal’ nation-state

IR theory long proposed the single-nation-state – one people with an independent, sovereign government – as the most stable and ideal form. That may be true in theory, but in practice few people have the luxury of living in such a country. Most live in countries with at least two nationalities, and many countries rival the U.S. as “melting pots.”

Often these nationalities are matters of community or ethnic pride rather than political identity. That’s the case with most ‘hyphenated Americans,’ who may call themselves Irish-Americans, African-Americans, or Mexican-Americans to honor their community or family heritages, but have no desire for separate governments. Despite the warnings of assimilationist conservatives, the members of these nationalities can and do preserve their languages and cultures and still see themselves as (or aspire to be) fully “American.” This pride of nationality yet without national separatism pattern exists in many other countries as well.

But sometimes nationalities do seek separation. This may happen because two or more nationalities were ‘united’ by foreign-drawn borders, but always maintained separate political identities, as was the case in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Or it may happen because a dominant – not always majority – nationality deprives others of political and/or economic opportunities.

“Russianizing” the Ukraine or “Ukrainianizing” the Crimea?

And it may happen when a state incites separatist fervor among co-nationals in another state – to weaken a rival state and/or stake a claim for some part of its territory – as many Ukrainians claim the Russian government has done among ethnic Russians in the Crimea.

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher offered this ethno-linguistic map of the Ukraine:

Ukrainian nationality traces its roots to the 9th century Kieven Rus, but the mix of nationalities within the current borders of the Ukraine is not entirely an accident. Most of the Russians in the Crimea moved there after World War II, when Josef Stalin deported the native Crimean Tatars. That was part of a wider attempt to “Russianize” the various republics within the Soviet Union, and the Russian Parliament are now weighing a bill to fast-track citizenship for Russian citizens in the Crimea, a pretextual causus belli that President Putin also used in Georgia in 2008.

President Putin denies inciting this national separatism, and insists he is simply protecting Russians in the “near abroad” from being “Ukrainianized” against their will. As a practical matter, it will be all but impossible to parse out exactly how much of which story is true, and the fate of the Crimea will hinge less on lofty theories of justice than harsh levers of power. If the 2008 Russo-Georgia War pattern repeats itself, the Crimea will become an autonomous region, with Russia recognizing and ensuring quasi-independence – as a client-state – despite objections from the Ukraine, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Why is Russia doing this? That’s a question with a lot of answers, depending on the respondent’s preferred historical frame. And we’ll begin looking at those tomorrow.


Happy Tuesday!