Analysis: Ukraine crisis highlights Asia’s ethnic and border issues
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Analysis: Ukraine crisis highlights Asia’s ethnic and border issues

As the neat borders set after WWII begin to fracture, map makers in Asia and around the world are assured a busy future, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring

The Russian invasion of part of Ukraine is surely contrary to all international rules and norms. But it is also a reminder that the supposed inviolability of international borders as established after the Second World War, and by the de-colonization process of the following 40 years, is fraught with problems.

Every country resists to the end the idea of losing what it deems sovereign territory yet clinging on to territory often comes at the price of internal wars and/or international tensions. The borders of Ukraine are a very obvious problem which left the Crimea, where Russians are a large majority and where Russia bases its Black Sea fleet, as part of Ukraine.

Likewise, significant parts of eastern Ukraine should have been part of Russia. That these anomalies came about was largely the result of the Russians themselves – or at least of the Soviet Union in the era of Josef Stalin.

In order to maintain the myth of the USSR as a union of nationalities while ensuring that nationalisms were kept in check, Stalin drew borders for subservient republics which ensured that they contained significant minorities of people with linguistic and cultural allegiances to other republics. Thus Russians were a large minority in Ukraine. Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan and Tajikistan all had large minorities of each other’s ethnic group.

Stalin added to the mess by uprooting most of the Crimean tatars – descendants of the Turkic speaking, Muslim population before Russia’s conquest of Crimea in the 18th century – and shipping them to Uzbekistan. That was after a large percentage of them had already died in famines in 1930s with Russian ethnic prejudices against them adding to the huge death toll from Stalin’s political purges and collectivization.

Ukraine’s geography was further confused by the Soviet seizure in 1939 of western Poland, including the city of Lvov. The Soviets were allowed to keep this in 1945 while Poland got former German lands in the west, ethnically cleansed of Germany by the victorious powers, USSR, US and Britain.

Other former Soviet republics do not have quite the same concentration of Russians as do parts of Ukraine. Nonetheless there are enough Russians left in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Latvia that governments will doubtless feel more nervous of Russian desires to use ethnic Russians and the implicit threat of “defending” them to reassert influence in the “near abroad” as Russia refers to its once subject neighbors.

What China makes of all this is not yet clear. On the one hand it is happy to see the west’s discomfort, which condemns Moscow but is unable to restrain President Vladimir Putin. On the other China should worry about any changes of land borders achieved by force or for ethnic reasons.

While it may want to expand its maritime boundaries, China should be more than satisfied by the land borders bequeathed by the (Manchu) Qing dynasty which massively expanded the empire to include Manchuria, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and part of Mongolia. Unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet is a constant reminder of the impermanence of many borders which defy ethnicity, religion and language.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has specifically claimed Russia’s right to “protect” Russians in Ukraine (and anywhere, presumably). That might be a nice precedent for the Chinese, whose diaspora reaches into every corner of Southeast Asia, if not to the rest of the world including but not limited to Canada, Australia and the United States.

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