About a thousand people killed in armed conflicts, many more injured or deserting their homes and seeking asylum, and parts of the Ukraine independent or de facto independent: That is the result of the conflict in the Ukraine by now. Who saw it coming?
Ever since the end of the Cold War, armed conflict between Russia and the European Union or the NATO seemed unlikely. The Ukraine, situated between these powers, seemed like a peaceful place. Yes, there was a divide between East and West, but to most scholars, this did not seem like an international security issue. Irredentism seemed highly unlikely.
And yet, today, we see a huge conflict in the Ukraine between pro-Russian Separatists and pro-western Nationalists. Crimea has left Ukraine, and the provinces Luhansk and Donetsk are engaged in a bloody war with the central government over their independence.
This paper will show how traditional security studies have failed to predict the Ukraine crisis. With Kinnvall, I will show how the „eastern, Russian“ identity was strengthened through processes of identity reconstruction, which then lead to the escalation we see today. For this, I will use critical theories of security, mainly relying on the Copenhagen school and their concept of identity security.
Finally, I will try to answer who was promoting this re-branding and how it was used in power politics, on a level that goes beyond the scope of classical realist theories of international relations. From this, I will try to find possible ways to handle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
2. What where we expecting?
2.1. Ukraine and Traditional Security Studies
The main focus of traditional security studies have been geostrategic or economical issues. Most papers published after the Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons are concerned with energy security (Yafimaya 2011).
In a paper published in Foreign Affairs, Karatnycky and Motyl argue that Russia mainly cares about geopolitics (Karatnycky/Motyl 2009). They view Russian-Ukrainian relations mainly in contrast to European and American interests and not on an ideological or identity level.
While they admit that authoritarian and nationalist movements might be an issue, they see these groups mainly as focal points for parties, which are rent seeking interest groups. They main interest would be exploiting the central state, not to separate:
„Although significant with Russia, especially in eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea, the political and economic elites that rule these regions are generally loyal to Kiev, not Moscow. Ukraine’s population is deeply divided along overlapping regional, linguistic, cultural, and political lines, but such divisions are common for almost all modern states and do not, in and of themselves, portend collapse.“ (Karatnycky/Motyl 2009: 113)
Why would these groups, loyal to Kiev, then start the violent separatist movements we have seen recently? A pro-Russian leader being replaced by a pro-western leader would be one group replacing the other, in their ongoing exploitation of the state: For a couple years, other groups will benefit from corruption, until your group wins again. It should only be a concern for Russia, and not a big one, either. In this traditional understanding of security, discussions about language laws should not become a security issue for the whole world.
Karatnycky and Motyl’s way of dealing with security issues in the Ukraine is simple: More western engagement, economically, politically, and militarily. European Integration would help the elites to rally their population and build up a more pro-European sentiment. Russia, being mainly interested in energy, minority rights and Crimea (ibidum), would be dealt with through safe energy markets, ensured naval bases on Crimea, and some minority rights.
And yet, we have seen quite the opposite: Offering more European Integration has only intensified the conflict. Signing the political part of the Association Agreement on March 21 did nothing to stop pro-Russian protests, culminating in the declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in April. And neither seizing Crimea, nor sanctions on Russia’s energy companies or offering minority rights could end the separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine.
2.2. Ukrainian Minorities and the „Russophones“
With new states emerging in the 90s, and with the ongoing ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia and countries like Rwanda, scholars became interested in the ethnic and national composition of the former Soviet Republics.
For the Ukraine, most scholars would see a nationalist, pro-European west and a russophone, pro-Russian east (Shulman 2004; Gee 1995; Fournier 2002). The nationalist groups were regarded as being pro-state, while the russophone in the east were generally considered more federalist (Shulman 2004; Fournier 2002).
The assumption there is that the central government has and promotes a Ukrainian identity, while the russophone population is mainly defined by their opposition to such a unified identity and supports a binational (Shulman 2004) or generally more pluralistic system.
This view is not suprising when we look at Ukrainian demographics. According to the 2001 census, ethnic Russians comprise only about 17 percent of the Ukrainian population, while ethnic Ukrainians make up about 78 percent. The remaining 5 percent are divided among dozens of other nationalities. In a setting like this, it makes sense for Ukrainian nationalists to seek control of a unified state, while Russians would promote a pluralistic state in order to preserve their interest, and ally with other ethnic and political groups.
Fournier does not see ethnic Russians as the main group of interest, but russophones, which entails other ethnic groups and pro-Russian Ukrainians as well. According to her, this identity is not based on a primordial understanding, but is cultural and linguistic and includes most of eastern Ukraine (Fournier 2002). Shulman goes as far as claiming that civic identity is stronger in the Ukraine than ethnic identity. Here, he uses a concept of Kohn, where ethnic identity is primordial, i.e. related to family and blood, contrasted by civic identity, which refers to the state and citizenship (Shulman 2004).
What Fournier calls russophone, Shulman calls „eastern Slavic“, stressing the inclusive element for other ethnic groups. However, both agree that the Ukrainian ethnic identity is related to being pro-European, and the eastern Slavic, russophone identity regards Russia as related (Fournier 2002; Shulman 2004). Identification processes revolve around the question which one is „we“, and which constitutes the „other“: Europe or Russia (Shulman 2004).
According to this view, Ukrainian relations with Europe and Russia are an important identity issue for Ukrainians. Joining the EU would, in contrast to Karatnycky and Motyls view, strengthen the Ukrainian, nationalist identity and threaten the eastern identity. At the same time, however, these authors would see no reason to fear separatist movements: If ethnic Russians comprise only 17 percent of the population, a minority in all provinces except for Crimea (census 2001), and if they have a stronger civic Ukrainian identity, being loyal to Kiev, then why would they fight the central government for independence?
3. What happened?
3.1. Timeline of events
Since the peer review system takes more time than the year that has passed since the event in the Ukraine started, this section will mainly rely on newspaper articles from September 2013 until August 2014.
On 21 November 2013, pro-Russian president Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. This led to the Euromaidan protests, which culminated in the impeachment of president Yanukovych on February 22nd and the election of a new government the following month.
A poll by Research and Branding Group shows the rift in the Ukraine: 49 percent supported the Euromaidan protests, while 45 percent had the opposite opinion. Support was strongest in the western regions and opposition strongest in eastern regions, with over 80 percent in both parts of Ukraine either strongly supporting or opposing Euromaidan.
Almost immediately, the new government passed a repeal of the 2012 language law that made Russian the second official language of the Ukraine. With this, Ukrainian would have become the sole state language on all levels. The law was vetoed by the president, but protests had already started against it.
Less than two weeks later, the Crimean crisis began. Russian military personnel and pro-Russian forces took control over the peninsula. In a referendum, Crimea declared itself unilaterally independent, with an option to join Russia.
After violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the new, pro-European government in Kiev, separatists in Donetsk announced a referendum on joining Russia. On May 11th, referendums on this took place in Luhansk and Donetsk. Consequently, they declared themselves independent. This move happened after they had already declared they independence before, but now it was reinforced by the vote. And on May 24th, the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk declared a merger and became the Federal State of Novorussiya, literally meaning „New Russia“.
Meanwhile, the separatists struggled against the army of the new Ukrainian government. The acting president, Turchynov, was quick to call pro-Russian activists (who had taken control of government buildings) „terrorists“ (BBC, 13th April). He started „anti-terror“ operations. This claim has been since repeated by the government: The separatists, according to this view, are mere terrorists, supported by the Russian government.
Russia, meanwhile, claimed it was only protecting Russians in Ukraine (RT News, 15th April). To Russian president Putin, the Euromaidan consists of „reactionary forces, nationalists and anti-Semitic forces“ (Washington Post, 4th March). At the same time, observers claimed that Russia was building up its troops near Ukraine (The Telegraph, 28th March).
Russia had admitted that Russian troops actively supported separatist groups in Crimea (NBC News, 17th April). It has not admitted to actively supporting similar groups in „Novorussiya“. However, reports indicate Russian involvement there, too (CNN, 23rd April). This could include intelligence as well as monetary funds, weapons, and volunteers who fight among the separatists. This also goes along with plans to build up Russian private military companies (Spiegel, 23rd July), who could then engage in eastern Ukraine.
So even though we have rather few ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine (between 15 and 30 percent according to the 2001 census), who should have been loyal to Kiev, we are seeing ongoing fights between separatists and the central government. It also seems to be relatively easy for Russia to encourage these tensions (Mankoff 2014).
3.2. How the „Eastern Slavs“ became „Russian Separatists“
As we have discussed before, most scholars agreed on eastern Ukraine having a unique identity, but not an irredentist, Russian identity, but a Ukrainian, yet less nationalist and more pro-Russian identity. How did this transform?
To go back to classical group theory, having an in-group and a distinct out-group greatly strengthens your identity. Against the out-group, your in-group becomes identifiable. Kinnvall now looks at threats to identity rather than factors that increase it. She identifies processes of globalization as threats to identity (Kinnvall 2004), but this concept can easily be expanded to any situation where uncertainty exists. The situation in post-revolutionary Ukraine held a lot of uncertainty for Ukrainians and therefore posed a threat to their identities and understanding of self.
With these threats, Kinnvall argues, people go back to strong identities, that offer powerful narratives and clearly define who „we“ are and who the „other“ is.
„This process of turning the stranger into an enemy is an attempt to securitize subjectivity in times of uncertainty.“ (Kinnvall 2004: 755
With this in mind, Shulman’s question whether Ukrainians regard Russia or Europe as the „other“ (Shulman 2004) gains new weight: It becomes a central question for identity. To make the Ukraine „European“ means to threaten the very core of any identity based on not being European.
The powerful identities Kinnvall identifies are religion and nationalism (Kinnvall 2004). This is especially interesting as the east/west divide in the Ukraine goes along religious lines as well as linguistic and ethnic ones. As Gee puts it:
„[in the Ukraine,] location, nationality, and even school language are jointly associated with religion.“ (Gee 1995: 386)
Gee claims that religion and nationality promote anti-Russian sentiments; according to her, eastern Ukrainians are less religious and less nationalist, but these identities are generally intertwined (Gee 1995). So the „eastern Slavic“ (Shulman 2004) identity is based on not being religious and not being nationalist, as well as not being European. The main common ground, then, is to be pro-Russian and russophone – support for Russia and speaking Russian become the main positive identities, as opposed to things they are not. This leaves ethnicity redundant – in order to support Russia and speak Russian, you do not have to be ethnically Russian.
Due to obvious research limitations, it is impossible to say whether the pro-Russian separatists are ethnically Russian or russophone, so the distinction becomes useless. The dynamics of identities provides a powerful explanation for stronger pro-Russian identities: First, the pro-Russian president is ousted and replaced by a nationalist, pro-European government. Europeanisation is a threat to a pro-Russian identity, and insecurities like this strengthen in-group identities (Kinnvall 2004).
The external threat does not only consist of Europe. If the eastern identity is binational (Shulman 2004) and opposed to a strong, nationalist Ukrainian state (Fournier 2002), that might try to assimilate minorities, then a nationalist government is a substantial threat. Against this threat, then, it is possible to mobilize people.
Here, we can use a concept from the Copenhagen School. Societal security goes beyond wars between states and looks at conflicts within states. It is defined as the ability of a society of preserve itself (Buzan/Hansen 2009: 213). We have already discussed the cultural differences between eastern and western Ukraine, be it religious, nationalist/ethnic or linguistic (Shulman 2004; Fournier 2002; Gee 1995). We can then say that while we have a single state, we do have to different societies or sub-societies in the Ukraine – East and West. The events that led to the revolution of 2014 meant a threat to the ability of eastern Ukraine to preserve itself. But the Copenhagen School has more to offer in order to explain the Ukraine crisis.
„This opened up for the study of ‘identity security’ and pointed to cases where state and societies did not align, for instance when national minorities were threatened by ‘their’ state.“ (Buzan/Hansen 2009: 213).
With two different societies, that are culturally different, but also have different identities, and a government that labels one of them „terrorist“, the national minorities feel threatened, mainly by the state, which they see as monopolized by the “other society”. And external threats by the „other“ will increase identification with the group and maybe even offer a narrative, or trauma, to define your group with (Kinnvall 2004).
One of the biggest threats for this eastern identity was an attempt to repeal the language law from 2012. It did not pass, yet the protests against it had already started and it was an important rallying point. In order to understand the scope of rhetoric against the language law, we have to consider the role of language for societies.
„Language is social and political, an inherently unstable system of signs that generate meaning through a simultaneous construction of identity and difference.“ (Hansen 2006: 17)
So according to Hansen, language allows for a shared reality and identity. The German word „Lebenswelt“ describes this shared reality, in which we function through language on the phenomenal level. Identity is relational and discoursive, not individual (ibidum) – and this discourse can only happen through language.
To put it differently: The relationship between the signifier, our words, and the signified, i.e. reality, is defined by the use in society, by how we use words. Even speaking the same language does not guarantee having the same society, we would have to speak the language in the same way; the differences between British and American English go beyond differences in vocabulary, the way in which the same vocabulary is used also reveals things about their respective societies.
Language, therefore, is relevant on two levels in order to understand eastern Ukrainian identity. First, it is a rallying point: being russophone means having a russophone identity, and threatening the Russian language can be perceived as a threat to all russophones. And second, language serves as a catalyst, creating a russophone „Lebenswelt“ by offering a common set of codes to share realities, to produce and reproduce identities (ibidum).
The shared language also means better access to the same media. Russophones will often follow Russian media, which explains the world in a different way than Ukrainian media, and exacerbates the shared reality of russophones.
This shared reality, combined with the external threats, militarily, politically and culturally, radicalized the pro-Russian identity. If speaking Russian is threatened, it becomes more important to speak Russian. The combined threats and insecurities helped Russian Separatists take control of eastern Ukraine, as they would not see other options but to secede. When threats amass, and when they become part of an identity, through traumas and narratives (Kinnvall 2004), then identification with something that caused these threats becomes impossible.
3.3. Securitising or: How Russian Separatists became „Terrorist“
At no point in this crisis did the Ukrainian government acknowledge the pro-Russian groups as legitimate opponents. It quickly called them terrorist, and their military operations in the east are still called „anti-terror“ operations.
Now, the term terrorism is becoming harder and harder to define, partly because terrorism is changing and adapting (Hoffman 2004). However, most scholars would agree on two levels of defining terrorism. We could define it by the strategies employed, for instance suicide bombings and guerrilla tactics. However, guerrilla warfare is also warfare and oftentimes employed by weaker militaries. The other is to define it as political violence, that employs propaganda strategies to reach their goals (Hoffman 2004).
Terrorism is a highly controversial term. It does differentiate a group from mere criminals – a terrorist commits political violence, not random or personal violence. However, it is also pejorative: The terrorist is weak, not legitimate, maybe even a coward. Treating a terrorist organization as a criminal organization means to treat it as an internal threat rather than an external threat (Hülsse/Spencer 2008).
But it also means to deny them the ability to make political claims, which can be the basis for negotiations. A crime is a crime, to make a compromise there means to make a compromise about justice, while politics can always be discussed. This understanding is constructed through discourse, and both the state and the „terrorists“ are the main actors in this discourse of defining the groups identity.
Calling the Separatists terrorist was supposed to make them look weak and illegitimate. But how can terrorists control regions? The Separatists (unlike, for example, Al Qaida) do not seem to see themselves as terrorists. They see themselves are legitimate representatives of their region, which is why they declared their independence before they even held a referendum about this secession.
Framing this conflict as a terrorism issue might change public opinion in western areas in favor of the government. Western Ukrainian identity, already based on Russia being a colonizer (Shulman 2004), becomes stronger when threatened by Russian terrorists, thus increasing support for the government.
But in the east, this framing will do the opposite. Legitimate concerns about language laws and nationalists in the government become „terrorist“ issues, and as we all know: terrorists (the way they are constructed through discourse) are not to be negotiated with, terrorists have to be fought.
That way, these issues are securitised: Every single problem in the east is now a security issues. And „securitised issues can no longer be debated, but have to be dealt with swiftly, even if it means to violate rules, norms and laws“ (Buzan/Hansen 2009: 214). Any form of violence is legitimate, if it is aimed against terrorists, at least that is how the term is constructed through general discourse.
This only increases the alienation from the central state and the threat posed by it, which in turn created more support for separatists. In a way, calling them terrorists turns them more and more in quite the opposite.
Alienating people in eastern Ukraine now made it possible to garner support for separatism instead of federalization. If the central government is using its military against russophones, why would they stay in the country? The Ukrainian government is in a double bind: If it does not fight the separatists, it gives up control over the east. But if it attacks ruthlessly, it risks turning even more people into separatists who define themselves by their opposition to the central government and by their losses in the fight against it.
4. Understanding the conflict
4.1. Who made it happen?
Little literature exists on the crisis yet, however, the question of who was driving this identity dynamics can be partly answered.
First of all, the Eastern and Western identities have long existed. Being this vague, however, meant that they were mainly used as tools to rally support by parties that exploited the system (Karatnycky/Motyl 2009).
The violent conflict now offered a chance to create narratives and frame it in ways to strengthen existing identities. One important actor has been Russia. Ethnic Russians are few, so relying on a primordial understanding would have gained little. Instead, Russia framed the pro-European groups as „reactionary forces, nationalists and anti-Semitic forces“ (Washington Post, 4th March).
This was a strong argument – radical nationalists like the Right Sector were an important part of the Euromaidan movement and became part of the transitional government that replaced former president Yanukovych.
Also, it was the old threat: Eastern Ukraine has always been struggling with western nationalists and fought for a binational, pluralistic system (Shulman 2004). Pluralistic traits of the Ukrainian political system might have been threatened before, but the enduring instability and the rhetoric of Russian media made the threats more credible.
Russia has an interest in creating tensions, so it creates a pro-Russian identity to help secure its geostrategic and economic interests in the region. Details like the language law, although not passed, only made these claims more credible. The „other“ was not only European, but western Ukrainian and nationalist, highly russophobe even.
The government in Kiev had to face some serious issues when it came into power. It almost immediately lost Crimea, Russia was building up troops nearby (would it invade?) and an armed insurgency started in the eastern regions. It tried to gather support as quickly as possible: By creating an enemy.
This enemy, now, was Russian, eastern terrorists. The real threat was not the eastern separatist terrorists, it was the Russian enemy. What they did not consider: A population, that mainly defines itself by being russophone and pro-Russian, the line between „fighting Russia“ and „fighting russophones“, is very thin.
So while Kiev might have improved its standing in the west, it significantly weakened its control over the east and helped create a pro-Russian identity that is no longer loyal to Kiev.
Another important factor are international media outlets and activists. The Euromaidan was intensely watched by western and especially European media. The movement was often idealized and identified with: „Our“ pro-European activists fighting the corrupt system was a common narrative.1 This has been observed in the Ukraine as well. Positive reports by western media might have had an effect on Ukrainian perception on Euromaidan, making it more „western“.
Similarly, western Ukrainians who consume western media and eastern Ukrainians who consume Russian media will be embedded in western and Russian discourses respectively. Creating these interpretations, narratives and framings will increase identification with either side.
4.2. Why does it matter?
As I have shown, the conflict plays a huge role in identity construction in the Ukraine and bolsters both an eastern identity, identifying with Russia, and a western identity, identifying with Europe.
A traditionalist would now argue that the conflict can be explained while looking at state actors and resources: Russia and the Ukrainian government are using these identities as tools to promote their interests, but looking at the resources (for example, energy) and these actors is not enough to explain outcomes.
While the traditionalist view may be true for the secession of Crimea (the Russian state was mainly behind it, it tried to protect its interests, its main opponent was another state), models like that do not explain secessionist movements and the dynamics between their identities and the conflict.
Critical security studies not only allow to deepen our understanding of security, i.e. studying internal threats (Buzan/Hansen 2009: 187), these theories also provide powerful tools to explain how a previously civic identity (Shulman 2004) turned into a more ethnic identity.
Dealing with the crisis in eastern Ukraine would traditionally mean: European integration (Karatnycky/Motyl 2009) while challenging the separatists militarily and diplomatically. Calling them terrorists seems like a logical step then, as it rallies support for the government and delegitimizes the separatists both internationally and within the Ukraine.
As I have shown before, this does not work if you consider identities. These traditional ways to engage the security threat posed by separatists will only strengthen pro-Russian identities, which are the basis for this insurgency. That way, these strategies partly caused the insurgency and will only intensify it.
Kinnvall’s work offers a good explanation for the role religion and nationalism play in this process. As powerful narratives, they are something to fall back to in times of uncertainty. At the same time, military actions will only create collective traumas and narratives, which then create even stronger identities.
These critical understandings of security then show what a better way of handling the conflict in eastern Ukraine would look like.
First of all, any form of violence has to be used carefully. Attacks will only intensify identification with militant separatists, and more violent behavior of the troops will do more damage. Having your own state fight against you will leave a mark and make sure that eastern Ukrainians will feel less Ukrainian.
Second, concerns of eastern Ukrainians have to be taken more seriously in politics. There are legitimate concerns about being marginalized in a nationalist, western Ukrainian state. Even small changes that recreate this fear can do a lot of damage. Instead of employing aggressive rhetoric, Kiev would do well to talk to local elites and include their interests, by guaranteeing minority rights and language laws.
After all, if we consider the role of identities in this conflict, Russia can neither start nor end the conflict on its own, it can only work as a catalyst for existing processes. The crisis would not end with Russia, as identities and concerns of the minorities would persists – a committed, enduring peace needs to protect their interests.
Third, European integration as well as Russian relations are not only matters of international relations for Ukraine, but also matters of national security and national identity and as such have to be handled with extreme care. Yes, the Euromaidan protested for European integration, but at the same time, almost half the country is against such endeavors if they threaten relations to Russia or threaten to change the country quickly. The answer is not more or less European integration, its framing any policy in a way that does not leave eastern Ukrainians threatened and marginalized.
With these steps in minds, policymakers can address not just the symptoms of the crisis, but issues that actually make up the root of the current problems. These are also policies that differ greatly from what traditional security studies would suggest.
5.1. What you just read
As we can see, traditional security studies would suggest no separatist movements, but internal struggle for power. Instead, militant separatists have taken up arms and declared independent republics that probably want to join Russia. Also, there does not seem to be a way to end this conflict quickly.
Using mainly the Copenhagen school, I have analyzed the crisis in the Ukraine with special regards to identities in eastern Ukraine and how they have been transformed. I have shown how eastern, Kiev-loyal Slavs have been turned into separatist russophones: By external threats, insecurity following the revolution of 2014, and framing of events directed by Russian media and officials.
I have also shown how this russophone identity is based on a nexus of religion, language and nationality/ethnicity, which increases is relevance and allows for a shared reality. At the same time, it increases identification with Russia, while Europe becomes the „other“, against which the russophone identity is defined.
In order to rally support and weaken the separatists, the Ukrainian government is acting harsh and calling the separatists „terrorist“. While this may make sense in the short term, it will have a negative impact long term, as it will intensify the conflict.
Finally, I have tried to assess who was involved in these processes of construction, and what role Russia, Europe and Kiev have played in all the explained processes. From all this, I have derived three suggestions to improve the situation and handle the conflicts according to critical approached to security.
5.2. What you did not read
A paper such as this, on a contemporary topic, naturally has some shortcomings. A lot of the issues discussed in this paper have not been studied systematically yet, so there is little literature available, especially if you consider my inability to read Ukrainian or Russian.
So a lot of the sources were actually newspapers, which often speculated themselves. Also, this paper is not the place to do a thorough discourse analysis (which would have needed Ukrainian and Russian sources anyways).
Questions about the exact Russian involvement in Ukraine or the number of troops on either side, or the demography of militant groups can hardly be answered yet and will hopefully be studied in the future.
Also, this paper fails to provide a fully neutral stance. Being fully neutral is impossible, since we are all embedded in discourses, yet this shortcoming is obvious in my use of words such as „separatist“ – the Ukrainian government uses it, the Russian side rather talks about federalists. This might be influenced by the western media, that widely employs it, however: Since they have proclaimed separate states, separatist seems like a descriptive term. It is still a term coined by one of the political actors.
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