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Putin Wants Russia’s Borders Changed? History Says He Should Be Quiet

Cruise Missile Mykolaiv
Russian Tu-22M3M fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Putin Wants Russia’s Borders Changed? Here’s How the West Should Respond: Russian President Vladimir Putin today announced the annexation of vast swaths of Ukraine in the biggest land grab since World War II. Putin deserves a response on that basis alone, but it is also important to respond because he is not alone. China’s President Xi Jinping continues to try to expand Chinese territory by citing the historically fictitious “Nine-Dash Line” as well as re-writing history to suggest falsely that Taiwan is part of China. Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also openly calls for tearing up treaties to revise Turkey’s century-old borders.

To dissuade and deter such challenges to the post-World War II liberal order, it is essential to ensure that such revisionism has a cost. Putin wants to revise borders? Fine, but the revisions will not be in his favor.

In 1939, for example, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. That war ended with the cession of Gulf of Finland islands, the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia to Russia. As Putin says he is against colonialism, then it is only right that the United States should declare that it considers those territories to belong rightly to Finland and to consider Russia an illegal occupying power.

The same holds true for Kaliningrad or, more properly, Königsberg, a Prussian city colonized by the Russians in the tail end of World War II. The fact that the Soviet Union took Königsberg via the Potsdam Agreement and not a formal treaty should ease any U.S. reinterpretation over the region’s sovereignty. Russia might claim that the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany effectively renounced German claims to Königsberg, but Putin would expose his own hypocrisy on Ukraine by claiming that the 1990 treaty, which did not specifically mention Kaliningrad, should apply.

The Soviet occupation of the Karafuto Prefecture (South Sakhalin) is likewise invalid. While Japan renounced claims to Sakhalin in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, it did not acknowledge Soviet or Russian sovereignty. Given the Japanese and Korean heritage of the prefecture’s population, it is reasonable for the United States to recognize it again as legal territory of Japan.  Certainly, there should be no dispute over the Kuril Islands; they are legal Japanese territory.

Washington might go further, however. Between 1921 and 1944, Tannu Tuva existed as an independent country adjacent to Russia and Mongolia before Russia forcibly reincorporated it. While the United States never formally established diplomatic relations with Tuva, it might recognize it as an occupied nation or raise questions about whether Mongolia should be the rightful sovereign.

Beyond Tuva, Russia, incorporates nearly two dozen other ethnic republics from the relatively tiny Republic of Adygea to the geographically huge Yakutia, to the already independent-minded republics of Chechnya, Daghestan, and increasingly Tatarstan.

The Biden administration may believe it is taking the highroad by limiting itself to the usual diplomatic denunciations, but tired and stale rhetoric will have no impact on Putin’s decision-making. A well-written computer algorithm could produce every statement the State Department releases.

Instead, not only Putin but also his fellow-travelers in China and Turkey should realize that when they open the door to revision of long-standing borders, the results will not necessarily be in their favor. Russia may annex Crimea, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia, but the West can just as easily recognize an equal or greater amount of territory under Russia’s control today as illicitly occupied.

Likewise, Turkey may occupy northern Cyprus and question Greek sovereignty over Aegean islands, but if Erdogan questions the validity of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, then he should realize he is reactivating the Treaty of Sèvres, and that the United States will once again recognize Izmir as Smyrna, a city under Greek sovereignty. Similarly, there is no reason why the West should force the Armenians to pay the price of their own genocide by recognizing Turkish sovereignty over lands in eastern Anatolia that Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish irregulars ethnically cleansed.

Putin and Erdogan are not original; they merely direct their countries down a path of slash-and-burn imperialism and ethnic cleansing perfected by Mao Zedong in China.  Here, too, it is time to stop deferring to Beijing’s notion of its own sovereignty and recognize Tibet, East Turkestan, and Inner Mongolia as nations improperly denied their sovereignty by the Chinese Communist Party.

True, on the ground, such diplomatic posturing will not mean much, but it will change the terms of the argument in ways that Moscow, Ankara, and Beijing realize will have long-term ramifications. At best, it could re-categorize residents of such zones as illegal settlers whose passports the United States will not recognize. The Kremlin and its like-minded friends may respond with bluster about Alaska, California, or Texas, but there is no equivalent threat of such separatism in America, nor are U.S. states equivalent to centuries-old entities forcibly subjugated in the last century.

TOS-1 Russia

TOS-1. Image Credit: Russian State Media.

It is time to play hardball.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Peter Rigas

    September 30, 2022 at 10:02 pm

    Its long past time to end the illegal occupation of Cyprus and apply the same rules to our “allies” as we do our adversaries. Its time to hold Turkey accountable.

  2. Carlos Cheng

    September 30, 2022 at 11:26 pm

    So should we return California to Mexico and allow Hawaii to be independent

  3. Archie Pelago

    October 1, 2022 at 1:10 am

    Under the same reasoning, the U.S. would have to relinquish the territories taken from indigenous peoples in violation of the plain language of still valid treaties, right?

  4. GhostTomahawk

    October 1, 2022 at 1:39 am

    How about this. Weak nations that can’t defend their own borders need to disappear in the sand of time as they always have before. The strong subsidizing the weak so the weak can endure is a drain on everyone.

    The war in Ukraine will end in Ukraines demise. Even if they fend off Russia the damage is done. The millions of Ukrainians fled means the end of their economy. The destruction of the infrastructure there means an end to sovereignty due to indebtedness to western kleptocrats. The loss of Ukrainian men means a birth rate implosion.

    Ukraine should’ve sued for peace. Instead they fought. Win…lose… it’s still a loss in the end.

  5. Tamerlane

    October 1, 2022 at 3:30 am

    Rubin, yet another chicken hawk neoconservative, again shills for another war to “make the world safe for democracy”. No thanks. You, and the entirely worthless anti-conservative AEI were entirely wrong on Iraq and shafted the country to further your wet dreams of regime change. Well guess what, you can’t perfect a human being using imposed institutions. Sorry. Your hubris is incredible. There’s a reason AEI is so discredited. Why would we possibly listen to someone who has so consistently been wrong for 20 years?

  6. Walker

    October 1, 2022 at 8:40 am

    I knew the Russians would be on here crying like little babies over this article.

    It’s funny to watch Ukraine school them in the art of war and see them totally delusional about it.

    Can’t wait to see Russia snuffed completely out like they deserve.

  7. Arash P

    October 1, 2022 at 1:41 pm

    History Says nothing of value has ever come out of Michael Rubin’s head!

  8. Quartermaster

    October 2, 2022 at 10:15 am

    Good article. That the Putin worshippers have drawled out from under their rocks to whine is just icing on the cake.

  9. Jacksonian Libertarian

    October 2, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    The Russian military is running out of supplies, and the Ukrainian military is becoming better at using the West supplied smart weapons. Putin needs a negotiation that locks in gains so he pressures Ukraine’s Western suppliers, while Ukraine just needs to keep winning to end Putin’s life.

  10. Scottfs

    October 2, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    Peace is possible in Ukraine. Have that country promise not to seek NATO membership in exchange for Russian withdrawal of all Ukraine territory.

    Anything else means Putin and his cronies win. The Russian czars are patient. They’ll get their empire back. Including East Germany, since that loss is acceptable. Let Germany fight its own wars.

  11. Vladimir

    October 7, 2022 at 5:56 am

    Nobody mentions Kosovo and Metohija ???

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