Mapping Russian Aggression on Ukraine
Geography may be used to wage war… and vice versa.
Updated 04/22 (TFR maps)
Maps available online about Ukraine are, very often, outdated, most of them dating from before 2014. The “Geography of Ukraine” page of Wikipedia, in French as well as in English, is really rickety. I had prepared some maps of Ukraine before the beginning of the Russian invasion to make comparisons with Fukushima nuclear disaster. By pursuing this approach, the analysis through the angle of the geography of this conflict allows us to better understand its development and certain stakes. The geography of Ukraine in the 2020s is not that of the 2000s. Knowing the territories on which the bombs are falling is at least as important as making pretty drawings of tanks. ( All maps gallery here, in french but mostly understandable by English speakers)
It also means considering that maps are not ‘flat’. It is not enough to draw arrows on the right and left to anticipate troop movements. The plains of Eastern Europe are very flat (pleonasm), but the hydrography plays a determining role. Especially in spring. You don’t cross rivers, marshes and lochs with a single stroke. This is precisely why almost all Russian troop transports are amphibious (BMP, BRDM, BTR, MLT, BMD…). But since the beginning of the invasion, the Russian army does not leave the main roads. To anticipate its movements, it is necessary to open the topographic maps, count the bridges, the kilometres separating them, the width of the river beds and consider the wetlands that are difficult to cross. For example, the flooding caused by the destruction of part of the Oskil dam to the east of Izum limits movement towards the northern approach to Sloviansk and the northwestern approach to Sievierodonetsk. One has to make the effort to study the geography of the Dnepro city site to understand that the Russians are not about to take the town.
The maps presented here and in the gallery are based on figures from the Ukrainian National Statistics Agency. Some recent figures for the year 2021, which I had retrieved at the end of January, are no longer available online since the invasion. There are still the statistical yearbooks for 2019 and 2020 with which one can draw a fairly complete picture of the country by region (Oblast). I hope to be able to go down one administrative level to the level of hromadas (more or less equivalent to the communities of communes).
For most of the maps I use a Jenks natural threshold discretization which allows to better show the regional differences. A part of the maps is also available, with comments, and complements, on cliocarto.
For the moment, I’m putting it all together on this page, but will later divide it into thematic pages.
Ukraine has seen armies and empires come and go for its control (yes, a very general consideration, but sometimes it works). It keeps very strong regional identities. The civil war between reds and whites, “super-civil war” between the Bolshevik Red Army and the Ukrainian Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the anarchist Nestor Makhno (1888-1934). The latter was originally from Hulipole, in the southern part of the eastern Dnieper, the southern part of Zaporoguie. Still today, the land of the Zaporogues Cossacks, self-organized and resistant to submission, its inhabitants, Russian-speaking or not, are already strongly defying the Russian occupiers.
The Dnieper River, which crosses the country from north to south, has never been a “natural border” (if there is such a thing…): the geohistorical divisions are organized more along a north-east/south-east or north-south axis (see the work of the young geographer Oleksiy Gnatiuk, in particular on historical strata and toponymy). On the other hand, from a military point of view, the crossing of the Dnieper has often been an essential element for those who want to control the country and its capital Kiev (Kyiv). Vladimir Putin’s troops, like the Wehrmacht on the outward journey in 1941 and the Red Army on the return journey in 1943, were forced to race to the Dnieper and its few bridges, the only points that could be crossed. The same was true for the Desna at Chernihiv and the southern Boug at Mykolayiv. Unable to carry out successful airborne operations, this ‘Russian campaign in reverse’ cruelly reveals the weaknesses of the Russian army, or at least of the units engaged on the ground. It also reminds us of the importance of topography and human settlement choices.
We can observe this in the axes of progression of the Russian troops at the national level, but also very locally, for the capture of Kyiv. A medieval city, which the Russians chose to attack by the north-western and eastern flanks, i.e. those best defended by the topography, in order to move faster. To the west, the Irpin valley constituted a line of slopes to be crossed, followed by forested areas that were not very suitable for the progression of armored vehicles towards the town center. To the east, the heights dominate the eastern plains and there is the only point where the Dnieper can be crossed, if the bridges are not cut. The north is blocked by the confluence of the Irpin and the Dnieper. Far from being surrounded, the city is remarkably well protected by its site:
The site of the city of Kyiv and the Russian attack maneuvers, 20 days after the start of the offensive. The combined map is a little less clear:
The areas that Russia is trying to occupy represent the “classic” useful Ukraine, as it was during the Soviet period. These are the most agriculturally productive areas, with the famous Chernoziom, and the regions of Donbas controlled by the separatists since 2014. But this industrial and coal-mining center (Stakanov was a miner from the Donbas), is today an antiquated and largely outdated tool.
Population densities per district as a scatter plot:
Network of medium-sized cities in the west, Kiev (Kyiv) and the urbanised and industrial east:
The south and south-east, the agricultural core of Ukraine:
The industry is still very important in the east, but the most dynamic and higher value-added industries are in the centre, in Dnepropetrovsk Oblast, and in the suburbs of Kyiv.
The demographic dynamics since 2010 have tended to strengthen the capital region and the western regions, which are in contact with the EU and are losing fewer inhabitants than the centre and the east:
Total Fertility Rate (TFR) evolution between 2013 and 2019 shows three characteristics. In 2013, before the occupation, eastern, industrial, and urbanized, regions had a lower fertility rate already as the west rural region of Polesia and Transcarpatia had the highest fertility. Kyiv capital region had a lower fertility rate than the Kyiv Region.
In 2019, data for Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk are not available. Still, it is estimated that fertility in Donbas occupied region dropped dramatically after occupation, as the separatist authority try to show a suspicious increase of the TFR that does not fit with the overall tendency. the notable point in 2019 TFR is the case of Kyiv City where the TRF is now one of the highest in Ukraine, in a national situation where the TFR is decreasing: from 1.51 in 2013 to 1.23 in 2019 and 1.20 in 2021.
The evolution of the TFR between 2013 and 2019 shows an interesting situation. As mentioned, Kyiv city is the only place where TRF has grown. it was even 1,50 in 2015, then stabilize a bit lower at 2.48 in 2019. far from the 1.29 of 2011. In rural western regions, the rate is lowering and is getting closer to the national average. however, the strongest decrease stands in the central region. it is to analyze if it’s a sign of the effect of urbanization or “modernization” of the household structure, or if it’s a sign of a demographic decline in those regions. Mapping the TFR at the district (raion) and municipality (hromada) levels would be needed to assess the situation.