Contested post-Soviet borders: Ukraine as a case in point

ZOiS Spotlight 2/2020 by Sabine von Löwis (15 January 2020)

Contested borders: checkpoint near the annexed Crimean peninsula. © Yurii Zushchyk / Alamy Stock Foto

Border regions, by nature, do not only reflect developments in one country and its societies and politics; they also affect, and are shaped by, the nation-state on the other side of the border. These regions are zones of contact and confrontation that define the interactions between the two sides and discriminate between the self and the other. Such interactions and discrimination across and along borders are embedded in power structures, but borders themselves have always existed as a historical, social, and cultural concept.

This is true not only for existing borders. The chances of the international community recognising a new border or border adjustment depend on how compatible the change is with the global political order and its main actors. Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea or the evolvement of the de facto states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova are clear examples of post-Soviet border changes that have not been recognised by the international community.

Ukraine is a particularly relevant example of borders in flux. The country borders seven states—Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, and Russia—as well as the Moldovan breakaway region and de facto state of Transnistria. There is also an open conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that may lead to the creation of two other de facto states on Ukrainian territory.

Disputes across recognised borders

The border between Hungary and Ukraine shows how national political agendas may cause tension at a border that is recognised in international law. In 2018, Hungary intensely issued passports to Ukrainian citizens it considered ethnic Hungarians. Budapest also promoted and encouraged Hungarian cultural activities in Transcarpathia, a region in Ukraine with a significant Hungarian-speaking minority. Kyiv, in turn, passed a law that made Ukrainian the main language of instruction in schools from age ten onwards, while accusing Hungarian cultural organisations of promoting separatism.

With these moves, two domestic political agendas of ethnically charged nation-building turned a border region between two sovereign states into a potential conflict zone.

Border disputes and border regimes

Ukraine is a sovereign state that emerged from a complex historical process involving nation-building and interventions by powers that claimed or ruled over the country’s territory. Nation-building—a process of developing a joint symbolic, economic, and cultural space—was and is especially difficult for Ukraine, as it meant looking back to diverse and antagonistic histories. The country’s current borders and regions are therefore linked to state-building projects from the creation of the Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman Empires to the formation of Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union and shaped by international events like World Wars I and II.

Although Ukraine’s external borders are embedded in an overarching historical narrative, they do not reflect on all histories of the region’s territorial units. “Historical regions” are often evoked to construct links across today’s state borders: Bukovina is split between Ukraine and Romania, Transcarpathia between Ukraine and Hungary, and Galicia between Ukraine and Poland. Given the complicated territorial history of modern Ukraine and the inconsistent and insufficient outcome of its nation-building project, it is no surprise that territorial claims reaching far back into history are used for political purposes.

The Hungarian-Ukrainian border is a prime example of the intricacy of border regimes, which are particularly complex in and around Ukraine. The country borders four members of the European Union (EU) and two of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). These supranational organisations represent competing concepts of personal and economic freedom and mobility that come up against each other in border regions. Between these competing regimes are Moldova and Transnistria. The EU’s and EEU’s expansions of their interests have led to conflicts that make a stable territorial order difficult to reach and keep the situation in flux.

Constantly evolving borders in the post-Soviet space

To understand the post-Soviet space, it is essential to consider not only past experiences, recent processes, and border disputes but also power struggles between supranational organisations. Here, as in any other conflict-affected area, most public opinions are bound up with historical, social, cultural, and economic narratives. These narratives seem to provide an air of historical inevitability or injustice that hides political agendas. They also cut through interdependent spaces, impeding interaction and transforming border regions from zones of contact into zones of conflict.


Sabine von Löwis is a social geographer and senior researcher at ZOiS.