5 Maps That Will Help You Understand the Malaysia Airlines Crash in Ukraine

Map explaining Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine

The war between the rebels and the Ukrainian army began a few months back. In early April, well-armed pro-Russia separatists backed by the Kremlin began to seize government buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities. Many accuse Putin of purposely destabilizing Ukraine by threatening to take military action if the country does not decentralize its power and give the rebels power in parts of eastern Ukraine. Now, many are accusing Putin of avoiding the blame for the rebels' mistakes, even though he provided them with weapons.

Image Credit: Getty Images. Some of the burning wreckage from MH17.

Although the West is blaming Putin for his influence over the Russian separatists in the area, who many believe shot down the plane by mistake, we don't yet have concrete evidence of who fired the missile. Officials said the plane was likely struck by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile, but they did not know who fired it or whether Russian operatives were involved at the time of the launch. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry claimed that Russian separatists shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets. 

The blame game is part of a larger war of misinformation between Russia and the West. Both Putin and Ukraine's government are pointing fingers at one another for increasing violence in eastern Ukraine.

Image Credit: Getty Images. A pro-Russian separatist carries a Russian flag.

Russia says that the West is blaming Russia without proper evidence, a tactic they say is left over from the Cold War days. The West is accusing Putin of supplying the separatists with the weapons used to carry out the attack. 

Even though U.S. intelligence found that the Russian government did not supply the missile that brought down MH17, European leaders are targeting Putin's inner circle with sanctions, presumably to pressure him to use his influence with the separatists to bring an end to the conflict. 

It's a complicated situation with many moving parts, and a history that makes it difficult to understand. Since its break from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has had a split identity that some say is tied to the war we're seeing today. 

Here are five maps that will help you understand what is happening in Ukraine:

1. The plane crashed into a crisis.

Airbus Defence & Space and AllSource Analysis

Satellite images released Tuesday by Airbus Defence & Space and AllSource Analysis show the location of the plane's crash and debris.

You can see the crash between Grabove and Rasypnoye in eastern Ukraine.

Image Credit: Airbus Defence & Space and AllSource Analysis

The Malaysia Airlines Flight was downed in eastern Ukraine, which is now a war zone. Protests by pro-Russian extremists escalated into a war in February between their armed separatist insurgency and the Ukrainian military. 

2. There's a bloody struggle for territory.


In this map, we see the places where Russian separatists are in control in eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia. 

The separatists are currently engaged in a bloody tug-of-war with Ukraine's army, as both camps attempt to take control of parts of the area. Heavy fighting has intensified in recent days, after two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed by separatists. 

The Ukrainian military alleges that separatists shot down the planes from Russian territory. Government troops have now regained control of Severodonetsk and Popasna in the Luhansk region. 

Ukrainian officials said there is continued fighting on the border with Russia, a border which they need to seal in order to prevent the transfer of more weapons to the rebels. It is a border that is likely to shift in the coming weeks as fighting continues. 

3. Ethnicity has something to do with how Ukraine is divided.

2001 national census

The divide in Ukraine existed long before this war.

Many Ukrainians in the East speak more Russian, are sympathetic towards Russia and want Ukraine to be associated with its buddies in the Kremlin. On the other hand, in western Ukraine, people are more Western-leaning and nationalist, and speak more Ukrainian.

That difference came through in the polls during the 2010 election. Voters in the east voted for the now-ousted Viktor Yanukovych, because he more or less cooperated with Russia's needs for Ukraine. On the other hand, voters from the western part of the country cast their ballots for Yanukovych's opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, in favor of cutting ties with Putin's corruption and bureaucracy. 

This difference came to a head during Euromaidan, the popular, Western-facing movement that pushed Yanukovych out of office in February for being too pro-Russian and corrupt. 

Ukraine's new government is pro-Ukrainian, and has already faced tensions with Russia, which backed the more sympathetic Yanukovych. The new government has arguably aliented the country's pro-Russian section, located more to the east and south. 

This is where the separatists come in: They're part of a group disenchanted with the new government's more pro-European, pro-Western shift. The Kremlin has been funding the separatists, in a bid to escalate tensions between them and the Ukrainian army.

The Kremlin's ultimate goal is supposedly to federalize Ukraine, or separate it into republics with their own agency, thereby giving the current government less power.

Image Credit: Washington Post.

4. It all started when the Soviet Union crumbled.


Ukraine has been going through an identity crisis ever since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. This map shows how the majority of Ukrainians, 92.3%, voted for independence. But even then, the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine did not vote as much in support for Ukraine's separation from Russia's Soviet Union.

Ever since, there has been an unresolved give and take between Russian-leaning and Western-leaning Ukrainians.

5. Resources have everything to do with the international response.


The U.S. has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia for its role in escalating tensions in Ukraine. Most recently, last week it targeted two energy companies, two banks, Ukrainian separatists and defense companies.

It has also put pressure on Putin to take the blame for the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight.

But the European Union is in a tighter spot. Many European countries heavily rely on Russian energy and exports. This map shows just how much.

The international community hasn't been so quick to act against the rebels. Meanwhile, tensions in the eastern part of Ukraine are growing. Most foreign officials have declined to place blame on anyone for the downing of the plane. But others believe in their hearts it was Putin at the center of the tragedy. 

One thing is for sure: To fully understand the international reverberations of the crash means wrapping one's mind around the longevity and the complexity of Ukraine's domestic conflict.