guaranteeing soviet borders

A map of Crimea (1922)

THINGS ARE LOOKING SHAKY in Europe’s East. It seems that the Russian Federation has adopted a policy of trying to destabilize the new government in Kiev by questioning its authority and right to exist. To what end, I do not know, because it is clear that European, American, and other powers recognize that new government’s legitimacy. But deposed President Yanukovich is asserting his continued status as the country’s legal president, and his messages are being circulated by Russian state-owned news media. Meantime, masked gunmen have been seizing control of buildings in Crimea. We are warned against separatism in Ukraine’s south and east, and are holding the air in our lungs, fearing an escalating conflict over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The trouble with the concept of territorial integrity in the post-Soviet countries, is that the borders of the countries were drawn by Stalin and others specifically to foster internal divisions that would keep any of the republics from achieving goals of independence based on specific, national concerns. The most legendary case of this is in the resource rich Fergana Valley in Central Asia, which is split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, making it an obvious source of contention for all three countries. Most of this mapmaking was done in Moscow, and with a quick stroke of Comrade Stalin’s pen, land became Ukrainian, or Uzbek, or Tajik. And now, more than sixty years after Stalin died, teenagers must bear arms, and diplomats must issue warnings, to defend the territorial integrity of the nonviable republics he created — states that were created to fail should they try to achieve and maintain independence.

While anybody who cares about anybody on Russia’s borders cringes at the idea of Russian expansion, we may eventually have to step back from our stalwart defense of, say, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and ask ourselves hard questions about the creation of these states, and how they managed to produce so many of such problems — so-called “frozen” conflicts that just happen to flare up from time to time. Will the government in Kiev risk a war with Russia over a peninsula inhabited by people who do not want to be ruled by Kiev, just for the sake of the ideal of territorial integrity? Will young people have to die to defend borders that are, by their very constitution, unsustainable? How far should we go to defend Stalinist cartography? Is it even worth it?

Some things to consider.

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