Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Why is Russia encircling Ukraine with what looks very much like an invasion force? The first principle in answering such a question is that one should never take the simple media-reported statements of any of the major protagonists at face value.
Yesterday I argued that an important part of the context for conflicts of this type is rival views of nationality. Here I look at the reality of the world’s many ambiguous ‘nations’ (we may call each of these a ‘polity’, a more inclusive term than ‘nation-state’ and a more specific term than ‘country’). Also, in the context of their present relationship to a dominant partner, we may all these places ‘annexes’, though not necessarily ‘annexed’.
My interest in political ambiguity was heightened when I watched the five-part BBC documentary series Places that Don’t Exist, presented by the intrepid and familiar Simon Reeves. Four of the six places featured are located in the former Soviet Union; none of these far from Ukraine. Of the other two, one was Taiwan. (The sixth was Somaliland, a breakaway from Somalia.)
China and Taiwan.
My sense is that the status of Taiwan continues to remain the greatest threat to ‘world peace’ (where ‘world peace’ is here defined as anything that is not ‘world war’). China ‘has’ three ambiguous annexes: Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Each has its own quite different set of historical circumstances. Hong Kong, as a polity, was almost entirely independent of China for 157 years to 1997. Its principal relationship was with United Kingdom, and it became one of the world’s biggest financial centres. In the last 25 years it has been subject to a now-near-complete reclamation process, the last few years being ones of intense internal conflict.
The polity of Macau was linked to another nation (Portugal, in this case) for much longer than Hong Kong was. So far it seems to have avoided the conflict that has plagued Hong Kong, and may indeed be poised to become a new focal point for China’s one country, two systems presentation of diversity.
Taiwan was a full part of China in the immediate post- World War Two period, between the surrender of the Japanese occupiers (1945) and the completion of the Maoist [Communist] Chinese Revolution (1949). It became the final bastion of the pre-Mao regime. The new Communist regime had priorities in 1949 other than waging a final battle, in the island of Formosa, with the surviving forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek. To the Chinese Communist Party, the polity of Taiwan remains the most significant unreclaimed territory.
Very early on, from 1949, Taiwan became a significant icon of the Pacific ‘Cold War’. It became an important part of the United States’ informal Pacific empire. Taiwan is an ambiguous annex. As such, we have come to expect that any attempt by China to repossess Taiwan by military means would mean an immediate state of war between United States and China.
However, what is little known, is that the polity of Taiwan covers more than the big island of Formosa. Lieyu Township, on Taiwan’s island group of Kinmen, is just three kilometres of shallow water away from China’s Xiamen city. The Mashan Observation Post is similarly close to China. Another Taiwanese archipelago – the Matsu Islands, aka Lienchiang County – are just off the Fujian coast, near the Chinese city of Fuzhou. (For a few months in the 1990s, I hosted a boarder from Fuzhou; he was always intensely interested in news about the then military build-up across the Taiwan Strait.)
What would the United States or the United Kingdom do if China militarily occupied Kinmen or Lienchiang, and stopped there? Quite possibly even less than they did with respect to Hong Kong. Military responses, pragmatically, have to be proportionate. Few would want to risk a world war over a few islands that almost nobody ever knew existed.
China also incorporates other contested territories, and is particularly eager to keep them under tight control, given the importance of central power to the Chinese territorial state. One obvious one is Tibet. The other is ‘East Turkistan’, essentially Xinjiang, home of the Turkic (and Muslim) Uighur people. (See East Turkestan independence movement, and the Turkistan Islamic Party.) Another important point of contest is the borderlands between China and India; both countries are significant nuclear powers.
The United States ‘has’ five external territories, plus two mainland enclaves. While none of these are politically ambiguous at present – in the sense that they are not currently contested – the five territories fall well short of being states (as Hawaii is). The territories are Puerto Rico, American Virgin Islands (whose people drive on the left), American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands (from where the 1945 atomic bombs ‘took off’) and Guam. The enclaves are Alaska, a full state, and Point Roberts, part of Washington State. Alaska remains the best place in the English-speaking world to see authentic Russian architecture; a clue to its ambiguous political history.
There are other places in the Pacific with significant American presence, including Okinawa (Japan). And, we shouldn’t forget the United States military enclave in Cuba, Guantanamo Bay.
New Zealand and its neighbours
New Zealand is a surprisingly interesting case. It has a realm with time zones covering a 24 hour span. (Niue is 24 hours behind New Zealand in summer; Tokelau, hundreds of kilometres to the north is a full day ahead of Niue).
New Zealand’s closest international neighbours – both on the Zealandia continental mass – are ambiguous foreign polities, with contested histories.
Norfolk Island would probably today be part of New Zealand’s realm, were it not for the convict history that tied it to Australia. (It is the only foreign territory that my parents ever took a holiday to, together. Today it is serviced by the regional airline, Air Chathams.)
Norfolk Island is an external – realm – territory of Australia, which has been recently subject to a (contested) loss of autonomy. According to Wikipedia, the results of a recent survey indicated that 25 percent of the local population want full independence; the remainder were equally split over whether their association should be with Australia or with New Zealand.
New Caledonia’s formal status today is as a French Overseas Territory (like French Polynesia and Wallis/Futuna; unlike Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana which are full ‘Departments’); ie New Caledonia is a French realm country.
New Caledonia’s sovereignty has been highly contested, though with the weight of the French identifying population prevailing. In 1988, an independence insurrection – Ouvéa cave hostage taking – was violently suppressed by the French Government, with at least 21 fatalities on both sides. Since then there have been a number of independence referendums, the results of which were determined – as noted – by the weight of population identities; the demographics favouring those with French identity. (In another group of islands, the Comoros Islands off Africa’s east coast, a similar demographic balance led to most of the islands becoming independent, but one island – Mayotte – becoming a French Department.)
England probably ‘has’ the more ambiguous territories than any other nation. First there is Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, each with different circumstances, and with different degrees of and processes of contestation as hegemons of England. Then there are the nearby tax haven polities: Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. The last two – together known as the Channel Islands – are just off the French coast, a long way from England, and were occupied by Nazi Germany during World War 2.
Even the status of the Republic of Ireland is ambiguous. While a full member of the European Union, it continues to have a relationship with the English-centred United Kingdom that is different from the United Kingdom’s relationships with the rest of the European Union. It even shares an ‘All Ireland’ rugby team with the Northern Ireland ‘province’ of the United Kingdom. After all, Ireland is a part of the British Isles, and the flag of the United Kingdom continues to include the Irish cross of St Patrick.
The United Kingdom still maintains an extensive realm, which includes part of the European mainland (Gibraltar), enclaves of Cyprus (Britain’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay), the Chagos Islands (recently in the news; and see this and this on youtube) including the American military base at Diego Garcia, and Pitcairn Island.
The most numerous group of British extensions is in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. They include Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands tax haven. Of particular interest here is the contested Falkland Islands (aka Las Malvinas) in the South Atlantic Ocean. Forty years ago, Argentina claimed or reclaimed Las Malvinas by military force. However, most of the Falklands’ residents identified as British, and were resistant to the claims from the South American mainland, especially as 1982 represented a particularly problematic period in Argentine history.
The result was a substantial military (and ultimately successful) operation undertaken by United Kingdom, though not supported by United States. It was never going to become a World War. But what if the nearby mainland had been Russia or China?
Other Europe and Asia
Before looking at Russia, we might note that both Denmark and Netherlands have significant ‘overseas territories’. In the Netherland’s case, the territories of Aruba and Curacao used to attend the Olympic Games as ‘Netherlands Antilles’; now their residents must form part of the Netherlands’ team. As in the Norfolk Island case, the possessor has this century taken the territory into a closer embrace.
Two other places that should be noted here are the Spanish possession in Africa of Ceuta, and Republika Srpska within what is generally recognised as Bosnian territory.
And there is of course Palestine, now two highly contested territories bisected by the post-1948 ethno-political state of Israel.
India has the seemingly permanent flashpoint of Jammu and Kashmir, contested with Pakistan. Similarly, Myanmar has Rakhine State. Philippines has its Bangsamoro region in Western Mindanao and the neighbouring Sulu Archipelago. All these contested places, like previously mentioned East Turkistan, are associated with Islamic as well as ethnic-identity nationalism.
Former Soviet Union
It is with the context of the above ambiguous political states that the Ukraine crisis – the problems and the solutions – can be understood. Before going directly to the Ukraine region, it is pertinent to note that, in 1945, the Soviet Union annexed a group of Kuril Islands from Japan. Now considered fully a part of Russia, these islands lie just a few kilometres to the east (not west!) of Hokkaido, one of Japan’s main islands.
So, if World War 3 was to break-out from the Ukrainian impasse, there is more fuel than just Taiwan for there to be a Pacific War in parallel with a European war.
The breakup of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics was inevitably going to create a number of border issues, as former provincial boundaries become national territorial boundaries, with the possibility of becoming geopolitical boundaries. (Indeed, we see this problem in the boundary within Ireland. While there are two distinct national polities within Ireland, the preference of all, nevertheless, is to downplay the role of the border.)
Ukrainian nationalism was always going to be a significant force, despite both a shared ethnicity with Russia and shared variant of Christianity (Orthodox). In the last 100 years this particularly relates to the economic exploitation of Ukraine by Russia, especially in Stalinist times. This parallels the economic exploitation of Ireland by England at the time (1840s and 1850s) of the potato famine.
It has taken time for some of the various nationalisms to unfold, however, thanks to the original terms of the Soviet Union breakup, that left compliant autocrats in charge of flawed fledgling democracies.
The first of the significant splits was Transnistria, on the Ukrainian edge of Moldova. The Moldovian Soviet Republic was an unstable Romanian-Russian identity mix. Transnistria, formed in the early 1990s, remains a strongly pro-Russian separatist polity that is internationally recognised today as part of Moldova. Russia does have military hardware in Transnistria, poised as part of Russia’s near encirclement of Ukraine.
Next was Abkhazia, a Russian-leaning province of Georgia located on the Black Sea close to Sochi. Abkhazia fought for (and won) its freedom from Georgia in 1992 and 1993. Still recognised in the west as a part of Georgia, Abkhazia is in reality still part of the ‘Russian Riviera’.
Next, in 1994, was Nagorno-Karabakh, which saw the creation of an unrecognised Armenian enclave within recognised Azerbaijan territory. In late 2020, Azerbaijan successfully reclaimed – by military means – Nagorno-Karabakh.
Jump to 2008. While the Beijing Olympic Games were being held, Russia invaded Georgia, a post-Soviet nation making strong advances to both Europe and NATO. Russia annexed the Georgian territory of South Ossetia, not far from the problematic Chechnya, again like Abkhazia a place nominally in Georgia but whose people identified, for the most part, with Russia. Russia also gained a set of assurances that Georgia would not become a full member of NATO. It is this event, however, that the American National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was almost certainly alluding to when he commented that he expected Russia to invade Ukraine before the end of the present Beijing Winter Olympics Games.
By the end of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, this intervention had become a historical fait accompli. Today, most people, including most of the mainstream media, have forgotten. Looking back, it was certainly not regarded today as a lost opportunity by the west to engage in an expanded war with Russia.
Fast forward to late 2013. This is when the occupation of central Kyiv began, an event reminiscent of the Arab Spring occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. The issue was the political leadership reneging on a promise to align Ukraine with the European Union. After three months and quite a lot of bloodshed, the President fled, and paved the way for a more western-aligned political leadership.
These events triggered the Russian intervention into Crimea, a strategic and ethnically diverse region not historically aligned with Ukraine. Thus, Crimea become another (strictly, two other) new nation that doesn’t officially exist. The parallel is with South Ossetia. At the same time, the eastern region of Donbas extended its attempts to breakaway from Ukraine, much as Abkhazia had fought against the state of Georgia. The result has been the creation of two unofficial Russian-aligned states that are usually referred to as Donbas. While there exists a definite boundary between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, many people who lived in Donbas have moved to Russia which is more economically and militarily secure.
So, in the region there are effectively five ambiguous though Russian-aligned polities, three of which border on Ukraine and two of which are internationally recognised as part of Ukraine. We may also note that Belarus itself, with its strongly Russian-aligned regime, is also somewhat ambiguous, and helps to maintain the balance of power in the region. Belarus may be described, for the present at least, as a Russian-aligned ‘autonomy’.
My present interpretation of the current impasse is that Russia has received intelligence to the effect that Ukraine plans to push to reclaim one or both of its ‘lost territories’. If I am correct, then Russia has no actual plans to invade Ukraine; certainly not as per the American ‘Olympic’ narrative. However, Russia I believe will take military action against Ukraine if the Kyiv-based government acts in any military way to reclaim either Donbas or Crimea. Crimea seems to more likely; especially it seems the more likely that the western powers would wish to prompt Ukraine to reclaim.
For a Ukrainian nation to go ahead and forge substantial ties with the European Union, it does not have to be distracted by its hitherto peripheral territories which have always been less keen to embark on that nationalist journey. For Russia, it would seem, the critical issue is that the five ambiguous territories maintain their present ambiguity. The Russian leadership might be ‘bad’, but I don’t think that they are ‘mad’.
What looks like an aggressive posture may really be about defending – and eventually recognising – the ‘places that do not exist’ as Russian-aligned ‘autonomies’. (Just as the United States will defend Taiwan – or at least the main island of Taiwan – from any attempt to reincorporate it into China.)
Some Wider Thoughts
NATO should be understood as a Cold-War institution that is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed a number of European Union Eurozone countries are not members of NATO: Ireland, Austria, and Finland. Finland is most significant here; it has a long history of rivalry with Russia, but is no longer seen as either beholden to Russia or a threat to Russia. Ukraine can forge for itself a future much as Finland has done. And it needs neither Crimea nor Donbas to do this.
It is also useful to note that the Russian desire to build a Greater Russia based upon Slavic identity may be not quite that. In the Interwar period – 1920s and 1930s – there was an underlying European racial hierarchy (as noted by Robert Boyce in his introduction in his 2009 book The Great Interwar Crisis) with Teutonic peoples (including ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and Scandinavians) at the top, Latin peoples next, and Slavic peoples below them. These beliefs, common in the past, are of course racist nonsense. Nevertheless, they linger, and East European people have suffered much because of them. Is Vladimir Putin the champion of the historically unappreciated Slavs? I think maybe not. The Rus’ people were in fact Swedish Vikings. And the supreme Rus’ were the Kyivan Rus’; thus the Russian national identity broadly defined may reflect the once-accepted racial hierarchy rather than bely it.
So, it could be interpreted that President Putin would like to acquire the citadel of Kyiv as the pinnacle of a Russian hegemony that controls the world in the terms that some early political geographers understood such control. (See Halford Mackinder in Wikipedia, and this Battle for the Heartland commentary by Chris Trotter in 2017.)
Having noted that, my preferred view about the present crisis is that the Russian leadership principally wants to defend the former Soviet places which, officially, do not exist. And therein lies our problem; we find it hard to cast a narrative around places that few of us have heard of. And we default to the presumption of officially recognised territorial sanctity; except when it comes to Taiwan.
Intractable boundary issues can be practically resolved by allowing for ambiguity. So far, the process of ambiguity – and a willingness by interested parties to live with that – has held the post-war peace with respect to Taiwan. It can do the same with respect to the much more complex boundary issues associated with the post- Soviet Union unravelling. We can take the middle road, avoiding both territorial dogmatism and identity dogmatism. And, we should always be sensitive to the preferences of the people who live in these ambiguous territories; so long as those people are willing to live peaceably with their neighbours.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.