Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s invasion demolished the idea of Russian invincibility. Everyone knows that Russia is not the unbeatable empire that Moscow tried to portray both externally and internally. And just as Russia tries to claim Ukraine as its own, other countries are eyeing pieces of Russian land, spotting an opportunity as the war shows just how weak the Russian military is. The nations in Russia are waiting for the right moment to oust the bully. The Kremlin should be wary of promoting a world where it is acceptable to seize territory by force; he only invites others to join them and claim parts of Russia for themselves.
Japan was the first country to break its silence after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Tokyo said of the Kuril Islands that it was “completely unacceptable that the Northern Territories have yet to be returned since their illegal occupation by the Soviet Union 77 years ago”. This annexation saw the expulsion of the Japanese from the southern islands, and since then the countries have failed to reach a compromise. The talks broke down when Putin showed he was unwilling to share land, only to win new ones.
Then China began to draw maps indicating that part of Siberia and the Russian Far East region was originally Chinese. Large tracts of Chinese land were annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Unable to claim this territory peacefully, Beijing continued its economic expansion around Baikal and actively bought and leased land near the border.
In Poland, accounts suggest that Russia occupied the Kaliningrad region in 1945 and that Warsaw has a right to claim it. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and even Ukraine may also have an interest in vying for Russian land. Russian fighters infiltrating the Belgorod region under the Ukrainian flag reminded Putin that others could also reclaim their “primordial territories”. Kyiv aims to restore its 1991 borders and end the war. Yet the prospect of exiled Russians on tanks transforming Russian border regions into “national republics” is seen as a welcome reward for Moscow’s actions in Donbass.
As Moscow continues to expand its European borders, national autonomies in Russia and their leaders in exile contemplate the decolonization of Russia, dreaming of dividing it into 34 independent states. For now, national liberation movements are absent due to oppression and persecution in Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, several regions of Russia declared their national sovereignty but were silenced. These regions have constitutions setting out their sovereignty as separate states, with power-sharing treaties governing their relationship with Moscow. These norms are “dormant”, but they can be activated as soon as the regime demonstrates its inability to keep the empire under control.
The Kremlin has fears based on a possible cascade of sovereignties in Russia. The Russian economy is based on the redistribution of resources from the regions to Moscow. The prospect of taking control of their own finances could spur local elites to seek independence. The destruction of Chechnya has shown other nations that have been forcibly joined with Russia how Moscow deals with “separatists”. Yet the Kremlin pushes the population of these regions over the edge, throwing its men onto the battlefield in Ukraine like cannon fodder.
The poorest regions of Russia were the most affected by conscription. Anti-war rallies took place in Dagestan, Kalmykia and Buryatia, with the leaders of the republics speaking out against conscription. They feel they are treated like second-class citizens because of their ethnicity compared to those residing in St. Petersburg or Moscow. The increasing number of coffins being delivered from the front line to small towns and villages is further fueling the flames. Once unleashed, the liberation movement could sweep across many regions, leaving the regime with only territories firmly aligned with the Russian narrative and unwilling to break free from imperial rule.
The Ukrainian government believes that Russia’s imperialist ambitions must end with justice for all. He has recognized the Kuril Islands and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as temporarily occupied by Russia and supports exiled politicians from Russian national minorities. Ukraine insists that to achieve a prolonged peace in Eastern Europe, Moscow’s troops must leave not only Crimea and Donbass but also Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s an idealistic, almost impossible dream, because Putin won’t give away an inch of land for free. Still, Moscow would be wise to watch its back. He might end up reaping what he sowed, as Russian lands prove too tempting for his neighbors – and oppressed citizens.
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