Understanding Ukraine

Trying to nail down some basics about a very complicated situation.

There are some key elements to the basic politics of Ukraine that need to be understood if one is to be able to adequately assess the current scandal unfolding regarding Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Zelensky. This post is an attempt to provide some basics, if anything, for myself. I am not an expert on Ukraine, nor Eastern Europe, but know the basic context and have sought to fill in some key blanks.

First, it is “Ukraine” not “the Ukraine.” Liesl Schillnger explains The Geopolitics of Ukraine’s ‘The’ via Foreign Policy:

The Ukrainian journalist Olena Goncharova broke down the specifics of the etymological insult in a series in the Kyiv Post called “Honest History.” “Saying ‘the Ukraine’ is more than a grammatical mistake — it is inappropriate and disrespectful for Ukraine and Ukrainians,” she wrote. Attaching “the” in front of the name not only suggests that Ukraine is a “sub-part or region of a country,” like “the Fens in England, the Algarve in Portugal, and the Highlands in Scotland,” but it implies that Ukraine is a vassal state, a colonial territory, whereas “Ukraine is no longer a part of another country or empire,” she emphasized. “After many hard battles, it has become an independent, unitary state.”

[…]

As a rule, English speakers don’t use the definite article in naming countries. Think about it: If you were heading to Paris or Berlin, would you tell a friend you were going to “the” France or “the” Germany? But there are a couple exceptions. We do use “the” for countries that are composed of plural entities, such as “the United States” and “the Bahamas,” and we use it for distinctive geographical regions, whether they’re countries or not, such as Goncharova’s Fens, Algarve, and Highlands, not to mention the Congo, the Sudan, and, in this country, the Midwest.

There’s no harm in calling England’s coastal marshland “the Fens” or in describing Indianapolis as a city in “the Midwest.” But several of these regional names carry loaded historical associations. To refer to today’s Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo as “the Congo” summons thoughts of King Leopold II, who brutally exploited the Belgian Congo and its people in the late 19th and early 20th century. Saying “the Sudan” evokes the British colonization of that vast sub-Saharan region in the first half of the 20th century. And in the 21st century, if you say “the Ukraine,” wittingly or not, you impose a territorial, Kremlin-style attitude to that autonomous nation.

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, but “But most Ukrainian politicians, journalists, and loyalists are not so sanguine. In their eyes, the fact of saying “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine,” is not cosmetic—it’s existential, and, more simply, correct.”

If one even gives Ukrainian history a brief look, one can see how geography has been a central issue. And one could further see why such linguistic issues might be a sensitive issue for Ukrainians.

Second, there are a lot of moving parts in this story. Here are some of the key actors:

Yanukovych: Viktor Yanukovych, the former president currently in exile in Russia, has been a central figure of great relevance to the current era, dating back to 2004. He ended up being central to both the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan revolution of 2013.

The Orange Revolution In November 2004 was focused on the allegations that Yanukovych won the presidential election fraudulently. This lead to the Supreme Court nullifying those elections (with Viktor Yushchenko winning the redo elections).

Yanukovych made a comeback in 2010, promising to be a reformer and to fight corruption. He was elected to the presidency in February of that year.

During the Yanukovych administration the parliament voted to cease pursuit of NATO membership and Yanukovych himself decides to stop pursuing closer ties with the EU. The EU issue leads to massive street protests, including security forces killing protestors in Kiev in February of 2014. Soon thereafter Yanukovych leaves for Russia, never to return. The Ukrainian legislature wastes little time in voting him out of office.

Russia invades Crimea in Match of 2014 followed by incursions into eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko: Petro Poroshenko was elected president in May of 2014. He lost his re-election bid 73%-25% in 2019 to Zelensky.

Zelensky: Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian know for, among other things, starring in a sitcom about a teacher who becomes president. He had zero experience in politics prior to his election. He is now globally famous because of his phone call with Trump that has become the central issue in an impeachment inquiry.

Shokin: Viktor Shokin was the Prosecutor General of Ukraine for roughly a year (February 2015-March 2016) during the Poroshenko administration. This is the prosecutor that Trump claims Biden had fired to protect Biden’s son, Hunter.

Freedom House’s 2016 report on Ukraine noted the following:

Another key problem is pervasive corruption among Ukraine’s prosecutors and judges. Poroshenko resisted numerous calls to replace Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin during 2015, and reformers such as Deputy Prosecutor General David Sakvarelidze complained that many prosecutors block efforts to fight corruption.

In 2017 FH reported:

Under intense pressure from his critics and civil society, Poroshenko in February initiated the removal of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was seen as blocking anticorruption reforms, and replaced him in May with loyalist Yuriy Lutsenko, who lacks legal training. Before his removal by the parliament in March, Shokin sacked his deputy, corruption fighter Davit Sakvarelidze; another reformist deputy prosecutor general, Vitaliy Kasko, had resigned earlier. Although the parliament adopted a lustration law in 2014, it has not been used against prosecutors and judges.

All evidence suggests that Shokin was corrupt and that US goals regarding his removal was part of a broad coalition of actors (both international and Ukrainian) aimed as increasing anti-corruption activity by the Ukrainian government.

Lutsenko: Yuriy Lutsenko was Shokin’s replacement. He is no longer in office since Poroshenko lost reelection and Zelensky installed a new cabinet. Note the FH assessment above: he was a Poroshenko “loyalist… who lacks legal training.”

Lutsenko was convicted of corruption charges in 2010, but was pardoned by Yanukovych. An initial read suggest that this conviction was politically motivated as Lutsenko was an ally of Yanukovych’s chief rival. The pardon may have been to appease the US and other western countries worried political corruption.

Freedom House’s 2019 report noted the following about prosecutions during the time Lutsenko and Shokin were in office:

Although due process guarantees exist, in practice individuals with financial resources and political influence can escape prosecution for wrongdoing.

The government has made little progress in meeting domestic and international demands to investigate and prosecute crimes committed during the last months of the Yanukovych administration in late 2013 and early 2014, which included the shooting of protesters. The authorities have also failed to mount effective investigations into high-profile killings such as the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet with a car bomb in central Kyiv in 2016.

Lutsenko had, earlier this year, seemed to be potential ally to the Trump administration’s goals in Ukraine, whether it be the Biden issue or the theories that Ukrainians fabricated Russia’s 2016 election interference (the main sources of these stories appear to be pieces by John Solomon* at The Hill, such as here–these pieces seem to be a huge part of the foundation of current right-wing media narratives about Ukraine).

This week, however, the LAT reported: Former Ukraine prosecutor says he saw no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden.

Ukraine’s former top law enforcement official says he repeatedly rebuffed demands by President Trump’s personal lawyer to investigate Joe Biden and his son, insisting he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing that he could pursue.

In an interview, Yuri Lutsenko said while he was Ukraine’s prosecutor general he told Rudolph W. Giuliani that he would be happy to cooperate if the FBI or other U.S. authorities began their own investigation of the former vice president and his son Hunter but insisted they had not broken any Ukrainian laws to his knowledge.

Lutsenko, who was fired as prosecutor general last month, said he had urged Giuliani to launch a U.S. inquiry and go to court if he had any evidence but not to use Ukraine to conduct a political vendetta that could affect the U.S. election.

Meanwhile, USAT reports: Ukraine opens case against former prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.

Authorities in Ukraine on Tuesday opened an investigation into a former government prosecutor who is indirectly connected to allegations that have prompted Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) opened criminal proceedings against Yuriy Lutsenko over his possible abuse of power, the government agency said.

It said that Lutsenko and other former lawmakers may have conspired to “provide cover” for illegal gambling businesses in Ukraine. Lutsenko disputes the allegations.

[…]

Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, said that the timing of the decision by Ukraine’s SBI to accept the case against Lutsenko “looked strange” given that he is a figure in the U.S. impeachment inquiry.

But Haran cautioned against jumping to conclusions about whether the case is politically motivated because, he said, the SBI is obligated to open an investigation into alleged wrongdoing and doing so does not necessarily mean the case is credible.   

So, in that context, third, Ukrainian politics have not been especially stable in recent years. Note that President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned office in 2014 as the result of a popular uprising (he remains in exile in Russia). The next elected president (after a brief caretaker presidency), Petro Poroshenko was so unpopular he lost re-election in a major landslide to a TV comedian.

Further, Ukraine’s democracy is weak, at best. If we look, for example, at the Polity IV assessment of the country, we find that that is shows substantial volatility from independence in 1991 through to 2013 when that assessment stops:

Being below “6” is non-democratic, and being on the line , as well as being red indicates, what the project calls “factionalism” which means means, among other things, a lack of stability of the rules of governance. This occurs due to substantial internal conflict over basic politics. The blue line indicates relative stability (the minority of the country’s post-independence existence).

For example, 2004 saw the “Orange Revolution” and 2013 the Maidan revolution illustrate this classification (as noted above) and hence the red lines and the ups and downs.

Freedom House currently rates Ukraine as “partly free.” It assessed the 2014 presidential election of Poroschenko as “free and fair” but had some reservations about the legislative elections owing to Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. More troubling was its assessment of the electoral laws and the legal framework for enforcing them (scoring this 2/4):

Election monitors have expressed concern about courts’ varying interpretations of electoral laws when faced with complaints regarding candidate registration and other topics, as well as about long delays in the adjudication of election-related cases. New electoral laws have sometimes been adopted in haste shortly before voting.

Fourth, which flows from the third (and should be clear by now), Ukraine has a serious problem with corruption. Transparency International scores Ukraine as a 32/100 (the lower the number, the worse the score) and ranks it 120 out 180 countries (#1 is the least corrupt country in the world by this metric, and 180 is the worst). This is important when trying to assess the honesty and integrity of statements made by past members of the Ukrainian government as well as to understand the general context of Ukrainian politics.

On this topic, Freedom House states the following: “Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. However, corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented.”

Fifth, it cannot be forgotten how much Ukraine relies on the US in the context of ongoing occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia.

For example, Politico reported this week: How U.S. military aid became a lifeline for Ukraine.

The U.S. has provided about $1.5 billion in military support to Kiev between 2014 and this past June, according to an updated analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. And Trump’s temporary cut off of the aid represented a significant setback for the country.

It should also be noted how much the internal politics of the country are linked to serious tension between pro-Europe and pro-Russian tensions.

There are a lot of moving parts here, to be sure. I would also recommend the following episode of The Lawfare Podcast: WTF, Ukraine!

I am open to any corrections or suggestions for further information.


*John Solomon deserves his own post, but I will point readers to the following. WaPo: How a conservative columnist helped push a flawed Ukraine narrative and this piece from 2018: Staffers at The Hill press management about the work of John Solomon.

FILED UNDER: General
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. lynn says:

    I ran across this the other day, on a facebook page for those learning English. Someone asked whether it was “The Ukraine,” “the Ukraine, or “Ukraine.”

    I posted that it was “the Ukraine” when it was considered part of the USSR, but that now it’s simply “Ukraine.” Another post said, “What difference does it make?” and all hell broke loose. As this article notes, it’s a political issue, not a linguistic one.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    I think this is good as far as it goes, but that you’re missing a lot. What’s happening now really only makes sense with some background going back further.

    And the poisoning of Yushenko really needs to be there. It’s an anecdote that tells a lot about the state of the country leading up to this, even if it was way back in 2004.

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  3. @Gustopher: Well, there is quite clearly tons and tons more. The post is already longer than most people will read, so I am not sure what I can do save multiple posts.

    I am trying to get the most basic issues on the table for understanding what is going on with Trump and the investigation.

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  4. Andy says:

    Here are two sources that I think explain the fundamental issues with Ukraine as a state and a nation that people in the west do not understand.

    Ukraine: The Price of Internal Division (Jack Matlock)
    The Real War in Ukraine: The Battle over Ukrainian Identity (Nicolai Petro)

    The TLDR version is that Ukraine is currently a state, but does not have a unified national identity. It has only been independent since the end of the Cold War – prior to this, it’s always been part of someone’s empire going back several hundred years to when a “Ukrainian” identity first began to develop. That development never matured and Ukrainians don’t agree on what it means to be Ukrainian and the country is rife with internal divisions as a result. Plus, consistent with its history, it’s being pulled between west and east.

    This is a state of affairs that is not conducive to stability or good governance and it makes Ukraine politically weak, corrupt and vulnerable to the machinations of larger geopolitical players (The US and Russia). It remains to be seen if Ukraine can exist over the long term with its present population and borders which are the products of the actions of outside powers and somewhat arbitrary line-drawing.

    Other European countries became stable, largely homogeneous and geographically coherent entities thanks to centuries of warfare and political development culminating in WWII and the ethnic cleansing that followed. Ukraine, a subject of other powers for that entire time, has not been able to develop its own coherent identity, much less grow natural borders and a somewhat homogenous population.

    Finally, English speakers should definitely refer to Ukraine as “Ukraine” and not “the Ukraine” as that is the proper term. However, I would be cautious about putting too much importance on that since the difference exists in English, not Ukrainian, which does not have the definite article.

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  5. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I would chop the entire “Ukraine” vs. “The Ukraine” down to a sentence, and use that space for a brief timeline, and add notes to figures like pro-Russian or Ukrainian Oligarch.

    The degree to which Ukraine is Russian, occupied by Russia, abused by Russia and befriended by Russia is important. And it’s something a lot of American readers aren’t going to pick up from context, since it’s so far from our experience.

    I’m not going to pretend to be even vaguely knowledgeable in Ukrainian history or current affairs, but the big issue is always Russia next door, and parts of Ukraine with large Russian populations. Pro-Russian candidate’s main opponent gets poisoned becomes very relevant in that context, along with Pro-Russian President flees country which triggers a Russian invasion.

    Poor Poroshenko probably needs a bit more background. And his role of fighting corruption by pro-Russian oligarchs to benefit more pro-Ukrainian oligarchs.

    Add a little Manafort for seasoning to make people perk up.

    Honestly, I think you might need multiple posts. The moving parts of the Hunter Biden conspiracy theory need the context. And I have no idea why Lutsenko is pushing pro-Russian conspiracy theories now, after having been aligned with Poroshenko, who I don’t think is at all pro-Russian.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    Finally, English speakers should definitely refer to Ukraine as “Ukraine” and not “the Ukraine” as that is the proper term. However, I would be cautious about putting too much importance on that since the difference exists in English, not Ukrainian, which does not have the definite article.

    It ends up being one of those little tells, like referring to the Democrat Party rather than the Democratic Party. Pro-Russian propaganda always calls it “the Ukraine,” since the Ukraine is just a part of Russia with little identity of its own. Pro-Ukraine propaganda, and reputable news organizations, drop the “the”.

    But also, they just get testy. Like transgender folks being deadnamed or misgendered.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    It remains to be seen if Ukraine can exist over the long term with its present population and borders which are the products of the actions of outside powers and somewhat arbitrary line-drawing.

    I agree with this, and basically all that you wrote.

    The majority Russian ethnic areas of Ukraine are a problem for Ukraine’s existence. I wish we had a better, more active, general policy for these types of disputes — people are going to want to move across whatever stable border arises, because someone is always going to be on the wrong side. Help the people that want to geographically sort to do so, while not incentivizing ethnic cleansing. A hard problem.

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  8. An Interested Party says:

    Other things we could do to help Ukraine include deterring Russia from messing with Ukraine’s internal affairs and providing various kinds of support to Ukraine with no personal political strings attached…of course, these things are impossible with our current president…

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  9. Lounsbury says:

    Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, but “But most Ukrainian politicians, journalists, and loyalists are not so sanguine. In their eyes, the fact of saying “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine,” is not cosmetic—it’s existential, and, more simply, correct.”

    This entire line of argument is utter bollocks and as much value as

    It’s on the order of the Saudis insisting (as they do) on Makkah over Mecca for their asserted meanings reasons.

    The argument might have vague merit if there was a wide consciousness among English speakers over the grammatical reasoning (the overwrought reasoning from non-native English 2nd language learners). Were the Ukrainians not raising the issue themselves literally no one would think of it in a political sense and it would have literally no implication, politically.

    Jousting with organic language usage, in another language, is precious idiocy.

    The Ukraine political establish should grow up. Childish emotional nationalist posturing from East Europeans has caused quite enough war and loss in the 20th century.

    @Gustopher:

    It’s not a bloody “tell” except among the precious political activist circles ever eager to adopt on the basis of facile superficialities, yet another cause celebre, although the more so you silly gits are mapping it on to your Trumpist problem.

    For my part, I find the idiotic, overdone ‘analysis’ by the Ukrainians ridiculous, childish and without basis, silly and absurd 2nd language learner attempts at prescriptivist reading (it is not a grammatical ‘error’) for their own political reasons, and to be rejected on that basis alone, just like the idiot Saudi attempts to impose their English versions for Mecca.

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  10. Lounsbury says:

    And for the specious grammatical argument, from superficial grammar knowledge, the Netherlands and the Philippines would like a word with you (as would the Bahamas, the Gambia, the Comorros, the Seychelles etc) – all countries sans issues and without the specious politico-grammatical Just So arguments of the Ukraine’s childish and insecure political class.

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Lounsbury:
    I’m with you on this. It makes not the slightest difference whether there’s an article or not, and it implies nothing about the status of the country named. I went through a number of aliases back in the bad old days, (Alex, Carter, Frank, David and several versions of Michael + surname), in addition I’ve written under IIRC twelve pseudonyms, most of them female, and none of it had the slightest effect on my self-image or happiness.

    There’s a strain of sympathetic magic in this obsession with names. In my lifetime we’ve gone through several ‘appropriate’ names for black people in the United States and none of it did anything to alter the realities of life for actual black people.

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  12. drj says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Perhaps you don’t realise it, but you are behaving like a flaming asshole.

    * If someone (whether it’s an individual or a group) wants to go by a particular name, it is common courtesy to honor that request. At worst, it is a slight inconvience to you, but for the people you address it may mean a lot for reasons you may not even be aware of.

    * Anyone with a basic grasp of English understands that unique names don’t have definite articles. More specifically, if I were to call you “the Lounsbury” the implication would be that there are more than one of you. It robs you of your unique identity – which is something people tend to care about. In particular people whose identity has been repressed for centuries by their close cousins from up north.

    * It is a complete dick move, as well as borderline racist (yes it is, you two-bit Archie Bunker), to label entire categories of people as childish and immature:

    The Ukraine political establish should grow up. Childish emotional nationalist posturing from East Europeans has caused quite enough war and loss in the 20th century.

    For my part, I find the idiotic, overdone ‘analysis’ by the Ukrainians ridiculous, childish and without basis

    I know you just want to rail against “political correctness” in all its forms (Because having to take the feelings of previously marginalized people into account is just too much hassle, amirite?), but instead of showing yourself to be a serious, tough, no-nonsense guy, you come across as lazy, rude and ignorant. Do better next time.

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  13. @Lounsbury: @michael reynolds: The grammatical argument isn’t really the issue (or, it is a side issue).

    It is about politics and identity and existed well before the current period. I have been aware of the issue for decades. It matters to Ukrainians and has since independence.

    I don’t understand, to be honest, the hostility to this.

    And, from Michael in particular, it is weird to me that a writer is so dismissive of the power of words and labels.

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  14. The name issue is a manifestation of the deep insecurity that Ukrainians have vis-a-vis Russia, which is at the heart of much of Ukrainian politics and has shaped the last ~30 years (really, the last ~century if not longer). Indeed, a brief perusal of Ukrainian history, specifically about control of territory, helps one understand this issue.

    It is why I brought it up in the first, not to be a scold about articles.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andy:

    That development never matured and Ukrainians don’t agree on what it means to be Ukrainian and the country is rife with internal divisions as a result.

    Boy, that sounds just like another country I know who’s name escapes me just now…. Right on the tip of my tongue….

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  16. Lounsbury says:

    @drj:
    I frankly could care less if you think I am a flaming whatever.

    However, the naive activist rush to adopt the unfounded 2nd language learner insecurities of the Ukraine I find to be foolish.

    Leaping in real political correctness (in the proper sense of the term) to dropping the in The Ukraine is giving ridiculous power to a false reading and power to such arguments that can be used in the case of the Saudis arguing that Mecca must be spelled Makkah for religious reasons (since they object to the natural English extension of Mecca to analogical utilizations, like Vegas the Mecca of gambling etc).

    Ergo, yes I reject this naive:

    * If someone (whether it’s an individual or a group) wants to go by a particular name, it is common courtesy to honor that request. At worst, it is a slight inconvience to you, but for the people you address it may mean a lot for reasons you may not even be aware of.

    Sometimes honouring an idiocy is worse than merely being polite.

    As for this

    * Anyone with a basic grasp of English understands that unique names don’t have definite articles. More specifically, if I were to call you “the Lounsbury” the implication would be that there are more than one of you. It robs you of your unique identity – which is something people tend to care about. In particular people whose identity has been repressed for centuries by their close cousins from up north.

    Well apparently you lot have a poor and provincial grasp of the English language as in fact Unique Names can and do take the definate articles – as in the Gambia, the Netherlands, the Sudan, etc. – none of which have political natterers with such profound insecurity as to believe that their national identities are in any way effected by a grammatical reading of their name that (1) is not in fact correct, as their examples show, (2) merely is writing their own insecurity on others.

    Now as in my own dialect referring to myself as The Lounsbury as emphasizer is fine (and in fact in older comments here, I had indeed that moniker and still keep it for some message boards, it was merely laziness that led me to drop here), the pretension is at once false, incorrect and without actual real basis – it is as usual with Prescriptivism in language, based on thin knowledge and over-reading of a usage tendency that is not a hard rule.

    In short the entire pretension politically correct hyper correction is neither grammatically founded nor even necessary as in native English usage noone if it had not been raised by some insecure Ukrainians would have given it any thought at all.

    It is rather in the same order of Ukrainian nationalists also trying to whitewash for nationalist-insecurity reasons the best-founded etymology of the Ukraine meaning approximately borderland, like March or Mark (see DaneMark) to assert it meant always country, although this is not at all well supported.

    Giving in to childish immature nationalist language over-reaching – another example would be giving in to the Greek nationalists childish objections to Macedonia (ahem, North Macedonia now) for their own idiot, childish, insecure reasons.
    @Steven L. Taylor:
    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My reaction is informed by issues like the FSR Macedon and the Greeks idiocy, the Saudis attempts to force their Makkah spelling on English.

    Lapping up the idiot justifications based on over-reading and poor reading of English grammar rules by 2nd language learners and nationalist insecurity and reaffirming such irritates me. It’s a form of ignorance. The Ukraine shall remain the Ukraine for me (it has a more elegant sound to my ears, they should celebrate that, challenges to their identity are not going away because of the article The or creating a faux etymological history. Self confidence comes from within.)

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  17. @Lounsbury:

    My reaction is informed by issues like the FSR Macedon and the Greeks idiocy, the Saudis attempts to force their Makkah spelling on English.

    And if that is your motivation, I think you are missing the point. I know that @drj‘s unnecessary escalation of this issue in his comment likely creates more defensiveness than is necessary, but let me try and further elaborate.

    And yes, the Macedonia thing was ridiculous. (But I think that it is very different category).

    I find the issue of transliteration perfectly fine, however (although I will plead ignorance of the Mecca/Makkah issue). When I was a child it was Peking, now it is Beijing. Just because I learned it one way and then shifted to another doesn’t strike me as a reason to get all upset.

    And if they country in question thinks that one transliteration of their cities in their language is more accurate that what some colonial powers decreed back in the day, why should this upset me (or you?). I honestly don’t get it.

    If Bombay is now Mumbai or Burma is now Myanmar or I decide I want to start going by my middle name and not my first name, it may require others so adjust, but, again, why get angry about it?

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  18. @Lounsbury:

    Lapping up the idiot justifications based on over-reading and poor reading of English grammar rules by 2nd language learners

    Again, forget the grammar part. Focus on the politics. And, seriously, if words and labels don’t matter, there are a number of words and phrases that I will not type here that have been used to describe any number of people groups that clearly have a great deal of power.

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  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And, from Michael in particular, it is weird to me that a writer is so dismissive of the power of words and labels.

    Allow me to quote a writer I believe you’ll recognize:

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;”

    Or something more recent:

    Vincent: “You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?”
    Jules: “They don’t call it a quarter pounder with cheese?”
    Vincent: “No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the f**k a quarter pounder is.”
    Jules: “Then what do they call it?”
    Vincent: “They call it a Royale with cheese.”
    Jules: “Royale with cheese. What’d they call a Big Mac?”
    Vincent: “Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
    Jules: “Le Big Mac! Ahhaha, what do they call a Whopper?”
    Vincent: “I dunno, I didn’t go into a Burger King.”

    Words are tools, they aren’t magic charms.

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lounsbury: Shorter Lounsbury: I’m an old geezer who just doesn’t want to change what I’ve been doing for 60 or 70 years.

    Do what you want, but don’t argue with people about it.

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  21. @michael reynolds:

    Words are tools, they aren’t magic charms.

    Indeed. And if one uses a hammer when a screwdriver is needed, one can create quite the problem.

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  22. The Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I perfectly well understand the politics – or rather the insecurity and the misplaced idea that such a label is threatening to their national identity.

    What is threatening to their national identity is the lack of an approach to resolving the Russo-Ukrainophone bridge in an inclusive identity, because both the Russophones and the Ukrainophones are stuck in a failed, romantic 19th century nationalism vision.

    Mecca versus Makkah is I will note nothing more than Saudi Wahhabite desire to impose their Wahhabite meaning on the world. The transcription (I remind that I am perfectly fluent in Arabic) of Mecca as Mecca is completely non-objectionable from any rational PoV (nor is it objected to by people other than those who have lapped up the Wahhabite linguistic spin, the same debate is completely absent in for example French where the normal French form, la Mecque is actually rather deviating).

    The objection to Mecca is like the The objection based on unfounded reading of the language.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I am a decade shy of 60 mate, however as I work in emerging markets investment, I am rather well versed in political insecurities and the useless of jumping to silly, misplaced and poorly informed linguistic demands from partisan nationalists with 2nd language learner grasps of English and misplaced beliefs.

    There is ample real world evidence that the The issue is sans substance, the insecurity of the Ukraine’s identity arises not at all from the usage, or not, of the definate article in a language not-native to them and which no-one would pay attention to the supposed meaning (from a misplaced over-reading) where they themselves not making it an issue. Like their attempts to change the etymology of the word Ukraine itself, to assert it never really meant “borderlands, march or mark” and always meant “country” this is ignorance in the service of romantic nationalist narratives, and in the long run that is damaging.

    The fundamental problem is a deeply unresolved lack of internal cohesion relative to national identity and the fundamental and long-standing East-West cleavage internal to the country, from the East where Russian identity has even pre Soviet period been dominant to the West on the Russian-Polish spheres of influence divide where the Ukranianian identity idea was born on the literal borderland between Catholic Slavic world and Orthodox Slavic world.

    The is not the problem, it is the Ukraniane’s not digestion of their own incoherence and the clash of maximalist nationalisms in the old romantic (and false) 19th century vision of pure nationalities.

    As the former Yugoslavia proved in its break-up, kow-towing to such discourses does nothing but reinforce rather bad habits and visions of national identity.

    If one wishes to write Ukraine for the Ukraine, fine, but don’t repeat the idiot romantic nationalist pretext, a kind of Dezinformatsia based on over-reading and unfounded conclusions.

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  23. Slugger says:

    What should we, the USA, do in regards to Ukraine? Is an independent, stable Ukraine in our national interests, or is a reversion to the status of a region subordinate to Moscow alright with us? European history is full of conflicts and bloodshed in the service of nationalism far beyond any possible rational valuation of human life. I would like to see American influence used to promote irenic solutions to world problems. As Lemberg turns into Łwow and then into Lviv, I’d like this process to reflect the desires of the inhabitants and happen without violence.

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  24. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I can’t account for people’s superstitions. I mean, I understand why Rowling did the whole ‘he who shall not be named’ in a book where magic is real – it’s an easy way to build dread. Tolkien did it, too. But I don’t live in magic land. Voldemort. Sauron. See? Nothing happened. Similarly the Orthodox Jewish thing of never writing out ‘God.’ Because the supposed creator of the universe would give a black hole one way or the other.

    Turning words into magical, mystical objects we make them less useful. I don’t pray to a screwdriver, I use it.

    As a matter of politeness I try to call people what they wish to be called, but in my direct, personal experience having been called by all sorts of names, who gives a shit?

    In any event I think (the) Ukraine has quite a few bigger problems to deal with than the presence or absence of definite articles in a language other than their own.

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  25. @The Lounsbury:

    I perfectly well understand the politics – or rather the insecurity and the misplaced idea that such a label is threatening to their national identity.

    And yet you come across as if you know best about all of this, which isn’t much of an argument.

    In regards to the Mecca business, like I said, I have basically zero opinion, let alone an informed one, as this is the very first time I have heard about it. I am certainly not questioning your expertise in that matter and, indeed, accept that you know far more about it than I do.

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  26. @michael reynolds:

    In any event I think (the) Ukraine has quite a few bigger problems to deal with than the presence or absence of definite articles in a language other than their own.

    Indeed, which is why the post is almost entirely about other issues.

    I think your shifting of the argument to one of magic is a way to enlarge your point, however. I never made a claim to magic. Words matter not because of magic. We don’t call people racial slurs because we think we are deploying magic, for example.

    Turning words into magical, mystical objects we make them less useful. I don’t pray to a screwdriver, I use it.

    And did I say anything about praying to the screwdriver? You know my point was about using the right tool in the right context for the right outcome and purpose.

    But, really, yes, there are far, far more important issues here.

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  27. Kathy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It was a common belief in ancient times that names have power. Specifically, that a curse wouldn’t work, or at least not well, if the person or even deity trying to cast it didn’t have your name.

    As an example, the Egyptian goddess of magic, Ist (Or Isis), was sometimes referred to as “the one who knows all names.” In the Odyssey, Odysseus, in a fit of hubris, tells the cyclops he maimed not only his real name (earlier he had told him his name was “Nobody”), but also where he lives and who his father is, as in “Know the one who blinded you is Odysseus, King of Ithaca, son of Laertes.” So when the blind cyclops, Polyphemus, calls upon his father, Poseidon, with a wish-list curse on Odysseus, it happens as Polyphemus specifies, over the course of ten years.

    More recently, to this day in fact, issuing orders in the name of someone higher up in authority, is taken more seriously. So in a sense names still have power.

    As to the argument, we can argue incessantly and dig up the roots of old beliefs, or we can simply say “Ukraine” instead of “the Ukraine.”

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  28. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    What does the word ‘gaffer’ mean? In the UK it means boss, in the US it’s an electrician working in film. The meaning of the word is in its context and geography, despite being English in both instances. The word ‘blue.’ Could be a color, could be a depressed state, could be adult comedy material. Context defines the word. Some words acquire specific meanings in part through intonation. ‘Fuck.’ Might be sex, might be pain, might be anger, might be incredulity, might be regret.

    We used to actually ticket people when they said fuck in public. Why? Because we incorrectly believed the word had some inherent power. We decided it would always be interpreted in its most offensive definition. And then, more or less overnight we decided nope, it’s no biggie.

    On the flip side, how many people have gotten in trouble for using ‘God’ in the wrong context? Or ‘hell?’ We are very inconsistent on this. Sometimes a word has some innate power, sometimes not. Hell when used to name a mythical place in a religious context: no problem. Hell as an exclamation, or even as a conversational beat, is a whole different thing. So when it’s convenient a word is defined by context. And other times, not.

    When we refuse to consider context we render the word less useful, not more, and impoverish our language. The reason I describe this as magical thinking is because of the notion that the word itself can defy context, ignore intention, simply levitate up and away and acquire any number of characteristics we describe as rude or offensive or blasphemous. God is great, there is no God. Same word. Praise one way, a capital offense in another context. It isn’t the word, it’s how it’s used.

    And believing that some particular arrangement of letters is in and of itself offensive, is how we end up banning Huckleberry Finn.

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  29. michael reynolds says:

    @Kathy:
    I’m happy to say ‘Ukraine’ precisely because I know it doesn’t matter. I’m in London at the moment and I suppose if I were introduced to someone who styled himself, ‘Lord,’ I’d probably choke down my snark and play along just to avoid a scene. But the title would still be meaningless to me. It’s all an eyeroll for me.

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @Lounsbury:

    It’s not a bloody “tell” except among the precious political activist circles ever eager to adopt on the basis of facile superficialities, yet another cause celebre, although the more so you silly gits are mapping it on to your Trumpist problem.

    It can be ridiculous nonsense, and still be a tell. The inclusion or not of the The is kind of silly.

    But, it’s a deliberate ideological sorting — most of the world generally calls Ukraine by what it wants to be called (sometimes slipping to the old term), while a political faction that rejects the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine does not.

    @michael reynolds: How is referring to Ukraine by a previous name not the same as calling a transgender person by their former name?

    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    But Bruce Jenner is a man in drag,
    and the Ukraine is part of Russia.

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  31. @michael reynolds:

    The meaning of the word is in its context

    Isn’t that the whole point here.? That “the Ukraine” in context has a different connotation than “Ukraine”?

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  32. Gustopher says:

    Also, aren’t Romeo and Juliet supposed to be a pair of nitwits?

    Three days before discovering his undying love for Juliet, Romeo was convinced of his undying love for Rosaline. It’s not a story of a great and powerful love that transcends all, it’s the story of idiots colliding and destroying themselves and everyone around them. It’s basically a Coen Brothers movie.

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  33. SC_Birdflyte says:

    There are two books those wanting to comment on Ukraine-Russia relations need to read: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder (2010) and Red Famine by Anne Appelbaum (2017). They do a lot to explain Ukrainian distrust of Mother Russia.

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  34. An Interested Party says:

    It’s interesting that someone brought up Macedonia…yes I’m sure to a lot of people thought that was quite silly on the part of the Greeks, but the Greeks, like the Ukrainians, have insecurity issues and why wouldn’t they? Both groups have been dominated by other groups for a large part of their histories so why wouldn’t they be a little sensitive about names? In the end it’s just being polite to refer to people as they want to be referred to, it’s really shouldn’t be that big of a issue…

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @An Interested Party: Macedonia is so much more complicated than Ukraine.

    It’s a fun rabbit hole of conflicting meanings, and wildly different groups claiming rights to the legacy of ancient Macedonians and Alexander The Great, with various fake histories being told on all sides. Also, Greco-Buddhism pops up and from there you can wander to influences of Greco-Buddhism on Christianity, and in the end you have no idea why anyone, anywhere can call themselves anything.

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  36. David S. says:

    This comment section: “It doesn’t matter which version we use.”
    Also this comment section: “This is the only thing we’re willing to talk about because it gives us a false sense of agency and intellectual superiority in a geopolitical struggle that we have no actual stake or meaningful power in.”

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  37. @David S.: Yes, as I noted above, the title thing really isn’t the point or purpose of the above. It was supposed to be an information item before getting into the more important facts.

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