millisphere (noun): A discrete region inhabited by roughly 1000th of the world's population; a lens to examine human geography.

In 2014, Malaysia air flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian BUK-telar missile near the village of Hrabove in the Ukraine (population 44 million), killing all 298 crew and passengers (including 27 Australians and one New Zealander).

This beat the precious record of 290 when the USS Vincennes shot down Dubai-bound Iran Air IR655 in 1988, mistaking it for a missile.

Hrabove is in Ukraine's Donetsk oblast (population 4.6 million) near the border with the Luhansk oblast (population 2.3 million). Both oblasts (regions) are claimed by Ukrainian-Russian separatists who refer to this entire region as "the Confederation of Novorossiya" (population 6.9 million and shrinking).

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I call this millisphere "Donbass", a local term for the Donets river basin. The Donets flows southeast and across the border into Russia where it joins the River Don. The Donbass is a centre for coal mining and heavy industry.

Once the bread basket of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has a population that is shrinking at the rate of -0.6 per cent per year, the fastest decline of all countries with negative population growth rates — eastern Europe, Russia and Japan — as measured by the sum of all births and deaths but not including emigration and immigration.

During World War II, seven million of Ukraine's eight million Jews were captured and murdered by the Nazi German occupation forces.

After the war, half the survivors left, mostly for Israel, where three of that country's prime ministers have been Ukrainian Jews, and Roseanne Barr, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Leon Trotsky and Simon Wiesenthal were all Ukrainian Jews or their descendants.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine has engaged in a difficult — and sometimes brutal — political and economic separation from Russia.

Two decades of cronyism, corruption and censorship, including the murder of journalists, followed independence as gangs fought for control of state businesses, which included arms manufacturers.

Under the 1994 Budapest memorandum, the United States, Britain and Russia agreed to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity in return for Ukraine giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons (the then third-largest stockpile) and transferring them to Russia.

The Ukraine is roughly three-quarters ethnic Ukrainian and around 30 per cent (mostly in the east) speak Russian as their first language.

Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych, who was from Donetsk and backed by Putin, was followed as president by pro-European Union Viktor Yushchenko, who suffered dioxin poisoning during the Orange Revolution.

Then it was Yanukovych again, which led to the pro-EU Maidan Square protests, during which 100 protesters were shot by government snipers before Yanukovych fled his ostentatious, bad-taste villa in Kiev for exile in Russia.

In 2010, Ukraine was the world's ninth-largest arms exporter — one above Israel, with America and Russia first and second. Then, 70 per cent of Ukraine's arms exports were to Russia, a market Donbass arms manufacturers still supply.

Since losing Donetsk in 2014, Ukraine has slipped to 11th, being replaced by the Netherlands in the top 10, while Israel has moved up to eighth place. Donetsk city is roughly 50-50 Russian-Ukrainian, and roughly one third of the residents of Donbass identify as Russian, one third Ukrainian and one third neither, calling themselves Slav, which can be either Ukrainian or Russian.

The Dutch team investigating the destruction of flight MH17 has traced the missile launcher that fired the BUK-telar to Kursk in Russia.

They want to talk to Igor Girkin, who claimed on social media to have shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft above Hrabove, before taking down the post the same day, and also Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, who commanded the launcher.

With Russian paratroopers and American soldiers in the country and "alcoholics, dodgers, drug addicts and morons" on both sides manning dangerously heavy arms — plus the Ukrainian Mafia involved with the arms industry — the people of the Ukraine find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

One is reminded of the words of Bob Dylan, whose paternal grandparents were Ukrainian: "You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled. Fear to bring children into the world." (Masters of War, 1963).

Past millisphere columns can be accessed at millisphere.blogtown.co.nz