Russia’s borders after Ukraine

State boundaries move all the time. Even nation-state boundaries, those that are supposed to be ethnically contiguous and therefore more stable, move frequently. It is simply a presentist illusion to assume that today’s borders are going to be permanent.  Even for observers based in the US, where the northern and southern borders have been fixed for some time, it is inaccurate. During our expansion in the 19th century (beyond the breakaway from England in the 18th century and the expansion through native American lands), we took by force, negotiation, or payment territory from Spain (Florida), France (Louisiana Purchase), Mexico (Texas), Texas itself, and Russia (Alaska). We even battled our gentle neighbors to the North (sorry) in a somewhat half-hearted effort early in the Republic. During the Civil War in the mid 19th c, we challenged our own national boundaries.

But our border changes are nothing compared to what has happened in the 20th century. World War I saw the end of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austrian Empires. Compare the World War I before and after maps. They are dramatically different. At the same time, Messieurs Sykes and Picot drew lines in the “Middle Eastern” sand that are the basis of more than a century of wars. Ask the Kurds or the Armenians about drawing up state borders and who gets what. They were the losers in that exercise over a century ago and are still suffering for it today.

And then there was the 1930s (Germany expanding) and World War II (Germany contracting and split in two). Poland ceased to exist as a state in 1795, re-emerged as a nation state in 1918, then had its borders move West after World War II. The de-colonization of the British Empire after World War II led to one of the highest profile instances of border movement: the breakup of Raj India and the ultimate creation of three independent states, Pakistan, modern India, and Bangladesh. It was neither a peaceful nor pretty process. Then came the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the collapse of the most recent inland empire, the Soviet Union.

Which brings us to Ukraine. Seen in the context of shifting state boundaries and a century of retreating empires, the creation of an independent Ukraine in 1991 was not unusual.  Many new independent nation-states have come into being since the end of World War II, with their territory necessarily coming from prior hegemons.  By the standards of this exercise, the modern Ukrainian state is not “old,” but it has a history well beyond its formal 30 years of independence.

By the same standard of moving borders, Russia’s claim to want to reabsorb Ukraine, by hook or by crook, is also not particularly unusual. It was a gambit that must have seemed reasonable to Putin in early 2022. Russia had succeeded in taking back Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Its other revanchist effort in Georgia in 2008 also succeeded. It has an ongoing effort to reclaim Moldova. Large populations of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and Latvia are no doubt on some Kremlin plotter’s wall map.

And the international parties that might have objected seemed unlikely to do so. The US had just pulled out from Afghanistan. Although not the Russian agent-ally that the prior US President had been, the current US president was perceived as weak. The UK had removed itself from European politics, and Russia had Germany over an energy barrel. The other, smaller states in Eastern Europe, formerly in the Soviet orbit, were given no agency in the matter, neither in the Kremlin’s eyes, nor by the Putin cheerleaders in the West such as John Mearsheimer and Tucker Carlson.

As for Ukraine itself, it was given less than zero agency in the matter.  Putin’s contempt for Ukraine allowed him to believe his advisors who briefed him that Russian troops would be welcome by the population, that the government would quickly flee, and that the Ukrainian military would fold at first contact. And so he greenlighted the move.

The gambit failed. That was clear within a few days. Very little went according to the original plan which was supposed to be quick and bloodless. At that time, before the bloodshed escalated, Russia might still have “declared victory” and stepped back, having “taught Ukraine a lesson,” without too much loss of life or civilian tragedy. In that scenario, Russia would have had little problem maintaining its 2014 annexations, perhaps expanding them modestly, and keeping pressure on a Ukraine increasingly oriented away from Russia.  Instead, in the weeks and months after the invasion, Putin doubled down, in rhetoric and action. And that is where the great tragedy has occurred. For Ukrainians, the shift from geo-political gambit to total warfare has meant death, destruction, and misery for its civilian population.

For Russia, it has become perhaps the greatest modern instance of unintended consequences. Rather than expand its borders, Russia’s failed invasion will likely reduce them. Putin’s invasion has invigorated Ukrainian nationalism, both at home and in the eyes of the world. While the war has been fought on Ukrainian territory—at great cost to that country—it has exhausted the invader. Having not succeeded quickly, Russia is failing slowly. Everyday it does not move forward, it lowers the chance of retaining its conquered territories. That is, having occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine a decade ago, it is now at risk of losing both as a consequence of its military defeat. Its outpost in Moldova has been tolerated; it will not be sustainable after this conflict is over.

And as Russia’s military might has been unmasked, its other borders are now at greater risk than they were prior to the invasion. I have written elsewhere about Russia’s demographic collapse. The invasion has only worsened that dynamic. In the years ahead, how will Russia maintain its non-contiguous “colony” in Kaliningrad?  Belarus was a de facto possession of Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. How long will Lukashenko hold on and how long will Russia be able to control Belarus?  Russia’s trajectory makes managing its vast territories in the Far East, especially on the Chinese border, harder and harder to imagine. Look for long-term Chinese leases of Russian land, with extraterritoriality, in the years ahead.

Russia’s bid to get bigger will likely leave it smaller than it began. Politicians, strategists (and historians), take note.