Map Explainer: Key Facts About Ukraine
The modern state of Ukraine was formed nearly 30 years ago after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, the country has often made headlines due to political instability and the looming threat of a Russian invasion.
In the map graphic above, we examine Ukraine from a structural point of view. What’s the country’s population composition? What drives the country’s economy? And most importantly, why is the country important within a global context?
Where Do People Live in Ukraine?
With a population of nearly 44 million people, Ukraine is the eighth-most populous country in Europe. For perspective, that is slightly smaller than Spain, and four times larger than Greece.
As the cartogram below demonstrates, a large portion of the country’s population is located in and around the capital Kyiv, along with the Donetsk region—which is front and center in the current conflict with Russia.
Not surprisingly, many of the country’s Russian speaking citizens live on the eastern side of the country, near the Russian border.
Key Facts About Ukraine’s Demographics
Ukrainians make up almost 78% of the total population, while Russians represent around 17% of the population, making it the single-largest Russian diaspora in the world.
Other minorities include:
- Belarusians: 0.6%
- Bulgarians: 0.4%
- Hungarians: 0.3%
- Crimean Tatars: 0.5%
- Romanians: 0.3%
- Poles: 0.3%
- Jews: 0.2%
The country’s population has been declining since the 1990s because of a high emigration rate, and high death rates coupled with a low birth rate.
The majority of the population is Christian (80%), with 60% declaring adherence to one or another strand of the Orthodox Church.
Ukraine’s Economy: An Overview
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine turned over thousands of atomic weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States, and other countries. However, the defense industry continues to be a strategically important sector and a large employer in Ukraine. The country exports weapons to countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
Furthermore, Ukraine is rich in natural resources, particularly in mineral deposits. It possesses the world’s largest reserves of commercial-grade iron ore—30 billion tonnes of ore or around one-fifth of the global total. It’s also worth noting that Ukraine ranks second in terms of known natural gas reserves in Europe, which today remain largely untapped.
Ukraine’s mostly flat geography and high-quality soil composition make the country a big regional agricultural player. The country is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat and the world’s largest exporter of seed oils like sunflower and rapeseed.
Coal mining, chemicals, mechanical products (aircraft, turbines, locomotives and tractors) and shipbuilding are also important sectors of the Ukrainian economy.
The Bear in the Room
Given the country’s location and history, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Ukraine without mentioning nearby Russia.
The country shares borders with Russia both to the east and northeast. For context, a car trip from Moscow to one of the Ukrainian border cities, Shostka, takes around 8 hours. To the Northwest, Ukraine also shares borders with Belarus—a country that is closely aligned with the Kremlin.
To the southeast is Crimea, a peninsula entirely surrounded by both the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov. In 2014, Russia annexed the peninsula and established two federal subjects, the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. The annexation was widely condemned around the world, and the territories are recognized by most of the international community as being part of Ukraine.
The region was of particular interest to Russia since Moscow depends on the Black Sea for access to the Mediterranean. The Port of Sevastopol, on the southwest edge of Crimea, is one of the few ice-free deepwater ports available to Russia in the region.
Due to ongoing tensions between the two countries, Ukraine has been seeking to reduce Russia’s leverage over its economy. As a result, China and Poland have surpassed Russia as Ukraine’s largest country trading partners in recent years.
However, Ukraine still remains an important route for Russian gas that heats millions of homes, generates electricity, and powers factories in Europe. The continent gets nearly 40% of its natural gas and 25% of its oil from Russia.
Furthermore, Ukraine is connected to the same power grid as Russia, so it remains dependent on Moscow in the event of a shortfall. Even as conflict heats up, the two countries still share economic links, which will influence how the situation unfolds.
Conflict in the Donbas Region
Ukraine stands at the center of a geopolitical rivalry between western powers and Russia, and that rivalry is flaring up once again.
Two regions along the Russian border—Donetsk and Luhansk—have been a conflict zone since 2014, when pro-Russian separatists began clashing with government forces. The map below shows the relative contact zone between the two opposing forces.
Currently Russia has troops and military equipment amassed at various points along the border between the two countries, as well as in neighboring Belarus.
In recent days, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, recognizing them as independent states. This recognition serves as a definitive end point to the seven-year peace deal known as the Minsk agreement.
As this conflict heats up, it remains to be seen what will happen to the roughly 5 million people who live in the Donbas region.
Note: As of February 23rd, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale military operation into Ukraine. The situation is still evolving rapidly.
A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)
This year marks 100 years since the birth of the Soviet Union. How have countries in and near Europe aligned themselves over the last century?
Timeline: A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)
On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine launching one of the biggest wars on European soil since World War II. The invasion reflects a longstanding belief of Russia’s that Ukraine—and much of the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellite states—is still their territory to claim. But what is the “former glory” of Russia?
Of the USSR’s former republics and satellite states, many have moved on to join the European Union, and in Putin’s eyes have become more “Westernized” and further from Russian values. In fact, Ukraine recently had its candidacy status approved with the EU.
It’s now been a full century since the formation of the USSR. Much has changed since then, and this visual timeline breaks down how countries within and near Europe have aligned themselves over those 100 years.
The USSR / Soviet Union
The Soviet Union—officially titled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—was formed 100 years ago in 1922 and was dissolved in 1991 almost 70 years later. At its height it was home to 15 republics, over 286 million people, and stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Ukraine, with virtual control and influence in countries as far west as East Germany.
Notable leaders characterized both the rise and fall of the USSR, starting with its establishment under Vladimir Lenin until the union’s dissolution under Mikhail Gorbachev. Latvia and Lithuania were among the first republics to make the move for sovereignty, beginning the demise of the Soviet Union.
Here’s a look at which modern day countries were a part of the USSR.
|Modern Day Country||Name Under USSR||Date Joined||Date Gained Independence|
|🇬🇪 Georgia||Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇺🇦 Ukraine||Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇦🇲 Armenia||Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇦🇿 Azerbaijan||Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇧🇾 Belarus||Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇷🇺 Russia||Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic||1922||1991|
|🇺🇿 Uzbekistan||Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic||1924||1991|
|🇹🇲 Turkmenistan||Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic||1924||1991|
|🇹🇯 Tajikistan||Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic||1929||1991|
|🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan||Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic||1936||1991|
|🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic||1936||1991|
|🇱🇹 Lithuania||Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1990|
|🇪🇪 Estonia||Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1991|
|🇱🇻 Latvia||Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1990|
|🇲🇩 Moldova||Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic||1940||1991|
Additionally, there were multiple satellite states, which were not formally joined with the USSR, but operated under intense Soviet influence.
|Modern Day Country||Country Name at the Time|
|🇦🇱 Albania||People's Republic of Albania|
|🇵🇱 Poland||Polish People's Republic|
|🇧🇬 Bulgaria||People's Republic of Bulgaria|
|🇷🇴 Romania||Romanian People's Republic|
|🇨🇿 Czechia||Czechoslovak Socialist Republic|
|🇸🇰 Slovakia||Czechoslovak Socialist Republic|
|🇩🇪 Germany||East Germany (German Democratic Republic)|
|🇭🇺 Hungary||Hungarian People's Republic|
|🇸🇮 Slovenia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇭🇷 Croatia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇷🇸 Serbia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇧🇦 Bosnia & Herzegovina||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇪 Montenegro||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇰 North Macedonia||Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia|
|🇲🇳 Mongolia||Mongolian People's Republic|
Today, there are still some countries that align themselves with Putin and Russia over the EU.
Belarus, sometimes called Europe’s “last dictatorship”, shares a border with both Ukraine and Russia and facilitated the entry of Russian soldiers into Ukraine. Furthermore, according to the Pentagon, Russian missiles have been launched from Belarus.
The European Union
The European Union was officially formed in 1993 and has 27 member states. Some former USSR republics are now a part of the union including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The most recent member to join was Croatia in 2013.
The EU has its roots in the European Coal & Steel Community which was formed in 1952 with Italy, France, West Germany and a few other countries comprising its first members. There are currently six candidate countries on track to join the EU — all but one were either former Soviet satellite states or formal republics:
- 🇦🇱 Albania
- 🇲🇪 Montenegro
- 🇲🇰 North Macedonia
- 🇷🇸 Serbia
- 🇹🇷 Turkey
- 🇺🇦 Ukraine
- 🇲🇩 Moldova
There are many reasons countries opt to join the EU: a common currency, easier movement of goods and people between national borders, and, of course, military protection.
However, in 2020 the UK formally left the union, making it the first country in history to do so. Here’s a look at every EU member state.
|EU Member States||Year Joined||Former USSR Republic?||Former USSR Satellite State?|
|🇩🇪 Germany||1952||No||Yes (East Germany)|
The iron curtain that was draped across Europe, which used to divide the continent politically and ideologically, has since been drawn back. But the war in Ukraine is a threat to many in Europe, and countries such as Poland have voiced fears about the spillover of conflict.
In late June, the European Council approved Ukraine’s bid for expedited candidacy to the EU, but the process will still likely be lengthy—for example, it took Croatia 10 years to formally join at the normal pace.
Beyond other needs such as military support, joining the union would allow refugees from Ukraine the freedom to migrate and work in other EU countries with ease.
Missing Migrants: Visualizing Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea
Each year, thousands of migrants take the journey along the Eastern Mediterranean to get to the EU. Some never make it to their destination.
Missing Migrants: Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea
Each year, thousands of migrants flee war-torn countries in search of asylum.
Even before the migrant crisis caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War, Europe has been the focal point in the past decade. Many refugees from conflicts in Africa and Asia, including those from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and have traveled to Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean migration route—a dangerous passage across the Aegean Sea that weaves along the coastlines of Greece and Turkey.
The journey to reach Europe is risky, and some of the migrants who attempt the crossing never make it. Using data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this map by Elbie Bentley visualizes the reported deaths and disappearances along the Eastern Mediterranean from 2014 to 2021.
Inspired by Levi Westerveld’s Those Who Did Not Cross, each lost life is captured with its own dot, in an effort to humanize the data.
The 2015 European Crisis
1,863 deaths and disappearances were reported along the Eastern Mediterranean between the years of 2014 and 2021.
Almost half of those recordings came from 2015 during the European migrant crisis, when a record-breaking one million people sought asylum in the EU.
About 800,000 of the one million migrants traveled to Greece through Turkey, with many of the refugees escaping Syria’s civil war.
|European Migrant Crisis by Year||Reported deaths and disappearances|
In an attempt to control the situation, the EU and Turkey signed a migration deal in March 2016 that agreed to send back migrants who did not receive official permission to enter the EU.
Though the agreement drastically reduced the number of people traveling through Turkey to Greece, thousands still make the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea each year. In 2021, 111 people were reported dead or missing along the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Dangerous Journey
According to the International Organization for Migration, the most common cause of death along the Eastern Mediterranean is drowning.
While the journey is only 5.4 nautical miles or less, transportation conditions to Greece are not always safe. Boats are sometimes forced into tumultuous waters, according to migrants who’ve experienced the journey firsthand.
And these boats are often severely underequipped and overcrowded—rubber dinghies designed to carry a dozen people are sometimes loaded with up to 60 passengers.
Safer means of transportation are available, but the costs are steep. According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, it could cost a family an average of €10,000 to travel by yacht.
Rescue Efforts for Migrants is Needed
Further complicating the dangerous journey is a lack of rescue resources.
According to a 2021 report by IOM, the EU does not currently have a dedicated search and rescue team. Instead, the onus is on individual states to patrol their own waters.
Until the crisis is better addressed or local conflicts begin to resolve, there will be an urgent need for increased rescue operations and a standardized migration protocol to help mitigate the number of migrant deaths and disappearances each year.
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