Monument on Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine (Picture: Alamy).

Ukraine

Ukraine: All you need to know about the country

A profile of Ukraine as the threat of Russia invading the country heightens.

Monument on Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine (Picture: Alamy).

Is it Ukraine or the Ukraine?

Firstly, let's get the name right. Before war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the country received a lot of international attention when it co-hosted the 2012 Euro Cup.

Many football fans, as well as some English language media often referred to the host country as 'the Ukraine'. This is incorrect. According to the CIA World Factbook and the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World only two countries in the world, The Gambia and The Bahamas should officially be referred to with the article.

It’s simply just 'Ukraine'. In fact, it may be considered offensive to some in the country to refer to the country as 'the Ukraine' because it is reminiscent of when Ukraine was one of 15 republics of the Soviet Union and was called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in recent years, has been seeking closer integration with the European Union and alliance with NATO.

Also on the subject of getting names correct, the official spelling of Ukraine's capital city is Kyiv – not Kiev.

'Kiev' is the Russian way of pronouncing the name of the capital. It became the dominant spelling over the course of the 20th Century, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Now that Ukraine is moving forward on the path of integration with the West and away from its past with Russia, many in the country hope to leave the 'russification' of Kyiv in the past also.

Kyiv Ukraine
The main religion in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox. (Picture: Alamy)

Where is Ukraine?

Ukraine is Europe's second-largest country, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom.

Located in Eastern Europe, it shares a border with Russia to the east, Belarus to the north and Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova to the west.

The external border of the European Union ends at the Romanian border with Ukraine to the south.

Ukraine boasts a few beautiful resort cities such as Odesa located on the Black Sea. It also has access to the Sea of Azov – the shallowest sea in the world which it shares with Russia.

In 2014, the peninsula of Crimea became a part of Russia – the peaceful annexation was seen as a triumphant feat for Putin, garnering much support and approval.

The international community regard this as an illegal act of occupation. Travelling in and out of Crimea is restricted. 

Recently Alina Pash, a Ukrainian singer who was chosen to represent the country in Eurovision has withdrawn from the event following controversy over her visit to Crimea. 

What is the population?

The population of Ukraine is approximately 44 million.

The population has been steadily declining since the 1990s due to mass immigration and an ageing population.

The median age in Ukraine is 41.2 years, while the life expectancy is 71.83.

What is the GDP?

Ukraine's GDP in 2020 was £117bn. In 2020, Ukraine was in 23rd place in Europe in terms of nominal GDP. The first three countries were Germany, UK and France respectively. Russia came in firth place after Italy.

Corruption remains rife in Ukraine and the country is one of the poorest in Europe. The average monthly salary is £277.

Because of Ukraine's vast agricultural plains, it is often referred to as 'the breadbasket of Europe' due to being one of the world's biggest exporters of grain.

Most of Ukraine's heavy industry has historically been located in Donbas – the eastern part of the country where war broke out in 2014 and is still ongoing.

Map of Ukraine with the conflict regions of Luhansk and Donetsk highlighted

Relationship with the EU

Currently, Ukraine is 'a priority partner' for the European Union. This means that they have a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the EU supports Ukraine democratically. However, there are no plans in place for Ukraine to join any time soon.

Many in the country would like to see Ukraine being welcomed into the EU family as soon as possible, claiming that it is well overdue.

One of the sparks that ignited the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 was then President Yanukovych's rejection of an association agreement with the European Union which would have seen the two strengthen ties, in favour of the Eurasian Economic Union backed by Russia.

This decision led to protests igniting on the night of 21 November 2013 in Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Kyiv's Independence Square.

The civil unrest that lasted for several months became known as 'Euromaidan'.

The demonstrations, which were often met with violence from the authorities, were protesting government corruption and abuse of power.

The revolution led to the pro-Russian Yanukovych fleeing the country.

With the backing of America, Ukraine has gone through two revolutions in 2005 and 2014. Each time moving further away from Russia politically, striving to get onto the path to join the EU.

On the contrary, many in Russia, including the president, see places like Ukraine, Belarus and the unrecognised Moldovan Republic of Transnistria as part of the 'Russian World'. Believing that they are linguistically and historically connected and therefore should be united if not legally then at least in spirit.

The conflict in Donbas has polarised opinions in Ukraine. The bloody and bitter eight-year war has turned many former pro-Russian-speaking Ukrainians away from their neighbouring country politically.

The issue of language adds even more fuel to an already extremely tense situation.

Euromaidan protests against government corruption in November 2013. (Picture: Alamy)

Language

Most Ukrainians are bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian. Russian is the most common first language in the conflict-ridden Donbas and in Crimea, as well as some of the larger cities in the east and south of the country. The west of the country is predominantly strictly Ukrainian speaking.

The subject of language has been seen as a strongly contentious nationalistic issue since 2014. As of 2021, Ukrainian is the country's only official language. Everyone including TV show hosts who had until then been presenting in Russian were forced to learn Ukrainian or lose their job.

There has been opposition towards the strict language rules, calling them discriminatory.

According to the centre for "social monitoring" in Ukraine, more than 50% of the population use Russian at home. The same percentage also said they would be happy to read books and watch movies in Russian.

'Servant of the People', a popular Ukrainian sitcom starring comedian turned President Volodymyr Zelensky, is mostly in Russian, the only time that Ukrainian is used is when the President gives an official speech.

Zelensky played a goody-two-shoes schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president after a video of him raging against corruption goes viral.

In a feat of life imitating art, Zelensky rode to Presidential victory on a populist anti-corruption campaign. His political party has the same name as the sitcom in which he stared in – 'Servant of the People'.

However, Netflix wrongly categorises the language of the show as Ukrainian even though it is Russian.

Despite Zelensky’s only political experience being playing a president on TV before he became head of state, his stance in the face of Russian provocations has been unwavering.

In December, he called for immediate sanctions to be imposed on Russia, saying that attempting to burden Russia with sanctions after the escalation of hostilities would not be helpful.

Flag of Russia and Ukraine in Berlin 180415 CREDIT ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for immediate sanctions to be imposed on Russia. (Picture: Alamy)

Is Ukraine in NATO?

The short answer is no.

The first question President Zelenskyy asked the newly inaugurated US President Biden in 2020 was "why not?".

NATO has a strong presence in Ukraine, providing the country with support in many ways including building capabilities and interoperability and cyber defence.

Ukraine is a strong candidate for joining the transatlantic alliance, and there have been processes set in motion to further access its candidacy before it is allowed to join.

There being a NATO-Ukraine Commission is one of them, providing a platform for NATO Allies and Ukraine to work together on security issues.

Does Ukraine have nuclear weapons?

When Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it possessed the world's third largest nuclear arsenal, as well as the knowledge and the means to create more nuclear weapons.

In 1994, following two years of negotiations between Ukraine, the US and Russia, Ukraine agreed to get rid of all the weapons that it had inherited from the Soviet Union, and agreed not to make any more on one condition.

The condition was that its sovereignty be respected. 

Why does it matter?

Ukraine was the second most powerful republic in the Soviet Union after Russia itself. When, on  December 1, 1991, it overwhelmingly voted for independence, any chance of the Soviet Union staying together even on a limited scale was destroyed.

Ukraine has always been important to Russia, not only in the context of the Soviet Union but also as an independent state - because of its great size and proximity and also because of what it represents symbolically.

Many in Russia see Kyiv, as the historic birthplace of the 'Russian world', as it used to be the capital of Rus’ – the first East Slavic State.

President Vladimir Putin has been trying since the breakup of the USSR to ensure that Ukraine stays within Russia's 'sphere of influence', a task that has been proving impossible since Ukraine has been moving closer to the European Union and seeking alliance within NATO.  

Putin has on many occasions warned NATO about expanding eastwards. The Kremlin has demanded a legally binding agreement that NATO will not encroach on its borders with troops or weapons. To which NATO replied that Russia has no power to veto Ukraine's hopes for joining the alliance.

In the 20th century, Eastern Europe was used three times by the West to invade Russia. The devastating consequences of these wars are still felt immensely even to this day. Tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed.

The psychological trauma of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is called in Russia, is deeply embedded in the Russian collective conscience. This becomes evident every year on Victory Day which Russia celebrates on 9 May with pomp and pride.

After WWII, Russia was determined to close down the routes through which it was attacked. They also widened the roads in the capital cities of the 15 Soviet Republics so tanks could roll in easily in case they needed to counterattack or put down a local rebellion.

For the past 30 years, the roads in the former USSR that were built during the Soviet Union are no longer controlled by Russia – a fact that Putin has publicly lamented on many occasions. Of course, he regrets losing control of not just the roads, but the power and influence that was absconded after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a documentary aired on Russia's state channel Rossiya 1, titled 'Russian. The Newest History', Putin called the breakup of the USSR a tragedy. When asked what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant to him personally, the president said: "The same tragedy as for the overwhelming majority of the country's citizens.

"After all, what is the collapse of the Soviet Union? This is the collapse of historical Russia called the Soviet Union."

Putin's actions over his almost 20 years in power, such as the annexation of Ukraine and war with Georgia have shown that he is not quite willing to let go of the territories that he has described as "historic Russia."

In the same vein, Putin also said: "The country lost 40% of its territory, about the same in production capacity and population. We have turned into a completely different country. And what has been accumulated over a thousand years has been largely lost."

He reminded the audience that in the early 1990s, 25 million Russian citizens found themselves in 'foreign' territory within an hour's notice. Back in 2014, the Kremlin asserted that it had the responsibility to protect Russians and Russian speakers anywhere in the world – a blanket statement that applies to a humongous territory encompassing all of eastern Europe and central Asia.

Russia has not backed down on the statement that was made during the heat of the war in Ukraine, asserting that the protection will be asserted by any means necessary. This pledge is a pertinent indication of what Russia may be prepared to do.

Putin said that the treatment of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine looked like genocide. The Russian military deployments are amassing near Kursk 500km north of the Donbas region where pro-Russian rebels control territory.

How does Ukraine's military compare to Russia?

Ukraine is one of the few countries in Europe that still has conscription.

Military service lasts for one year and is mandatory for males aged 20 to 27.

Ukraine's military power is ranked 25th in the world out of 140 countries according to Global Firepower ranking.

Russia's on the other hand is second after the United States.

Ukraine is a big country with powerful armed forces however, they are not big enough to stand up to its much bigger boisterous neighbour to the east.

For example, while Ukraine has 255,000 available military personnel, Russia has more than a million.

The defence budget of Ukraine, which is £7bn, pales in comparison to Russia's almost £32bn.

This is one of the reasons that Ukraine has been so keen on joining NATO and getting the military might of 30 of its member states behind it.

A Russian tank fires during an exercise near the country's border with Ukraine in December (Picture: Russian MOD).

A Russian tank fires during an exercise near the country's border with Ukraine in December (Picture: Russian MOD).

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Russia has launched a full-scale military attack on Ukraine. A move almost unanimously condemned by world leaders. 

There are reports of attacks on Ukrainian military infrastructure across the country.

Russian convoys have been reported entering from all directions including going through neighbouring Belarus. 

The military operation began in the early hours of Thursday morning, with Putin giving a speech at 5:55 am announcing a "military operation" in the Eastern Donbass region. 

However, reports of bombings have been recorded across the country, as far west as Ivano-Frankivsk. 

Putin said that Russia has no intention to occupy Ukraine, only to "de-Nazify" it.

A statement that many have ridiculed, pointing out the Jewish heritage of the Ukrainian president. 

Ukraine is fighting back, reporting that 50 Russian troops have been killed.

About 10 civilians are believed to have been killed, including six in an airstrike in Brovary near the capital Kyiv. 

A Ukrainian presidential adviser said that more than 40 soldiers had died and dozens more were wounded. 

Since the end of 2021 Russia has been amassed heavy weaponry in the form of tanks, self-propelled artillery, and short-range ballistic missiles within striking distance of Ukraine.

Russia vehemently denied that it had plans to attack, saying that it has the right to carry out winter drills anywhere on its own territory.

Putin has clearly warned that Ukraine joining NATO would be crossing a red line – a move that he would not be willing to accept. The US refused to concede.