Texians and Ukrainians
My research over this last summer took me to an interesting place for an international relations scholar. It took me to Texas. I didn’t literally travel to Texas, but surrounded myself with everything I could find about Texas in the 1830s and 1840s, a time when Texans (or Texians as they were originally called), fought for their independence from Mexico and their eventual incorporation into the United States.
The project originated with an invitation to speak on a panel next year that will be chaired by the well-known international relations scholar, John Mearsheimer, on the topic of Nationalism in International Relations, which just happens to be the name of my first book. In particular, I’ve been interested in how strongly one could draw parallels between Texas’ history and similar modern day separatist movements that have been encouraged by outside countries such as the events of eastern Ukraine and Russia’s involvement.
While drawing analogies is always a dubious business when thinking about international events, as a way of straightening out my thoughts before writing something more formal, allow me offer a few similarities and differences between Texas in the 1830’s. First the similarities:
1). Texans and Eastern Ukrainians both started their uprisings during times of transition in their homelands that provided both motivations and opportunities for separatism. For the Texans, it was Santa Anna invoking emergency powers under the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and using those powers to dissolve Parliament and state governments. This caused uprisings in several areas of Mexico besides Texas, and the Texans, who were appalled at the “absolutism” that had replaced fragile Mexican democracy, viewed the chaos as a limited window of opportunity.
For Ukrainians, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Russophile government of Viktor Yanokovich and the chaos and violence surrounding his ouster led to both the opportunity to take advantage of a near-collapsed state as well as fears that the new government would be antithetical to their interests as a people who identified heavily with Russia. Like Texans who likely viewed other revolutionary movements throughout Mexico as evidence justifying their cause, Eastern Ukrainians viewed celebrations of the ouster of Ukrainian authority in Crimea as an important inspiration.
2). Cultural “otherness” is important. The Texans of the 1830s had, for the most part, once been Americans, and still identified with the language, dominant Protestant religion, symbols, and culture of their former homeland. Although Mexican Tejanos fought alongside in roughly equal proportions with Anglos in Texas, the majority of Texans likely although considered themselves Americans first and foremost – and definitely not Mexican.
While Eastern Ukrainians were culturally much closer to other Ukrainians than Texans were to Mexicans, many speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, are associated with the Russian Orthodox rather than the Ukrainian Orthodox church, and, if they are older than 24, lived in the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. The cultural divide in Ukraine was reflected in earlier elections that continually saw a population divided as much by separate identity as much as separate interests.
3). People in the homeland care about the struggles of their ethnic “kin,” even if their governments are reticent. In the case of Texas revolution, the American government under Andrew Jackson was slow to act and never provided material support to the rebels. Partly this was because events unfolded so quickly in Texas, and it is hard to say what would have happened had events drawn out longer. Partly, however, it was because Jackson felt that it would have been “dishonorable” for the US to outright steal Texas from Mexico.
Nevertheless, across America, fundraising and volunteer drives were widespread and played a major role in providing the men and materials needed to field the various militias that took place in the Texas revolt. While the government felt constrained by international norms, the people of the US acted out of emotional ties to their former friends and neighbors in Texas.
In eastern Ukraine, the amount of involvement by the Russian government is still unclear. Just as Santa Anna accused the US government, rather than Texas settlers, as the main instigators of the Texas revolt, the Ukrainian government views Russia, rather than locals, as the main culprits in the Ukrainian war. Nevertheless, the extent of Russian involvement will only be learned in years to come.
Undoubtedly, however, Russian citizens, by admission of the Russian government, have left Russia in significant numbers to go fight for the people of eastern Ukraine. It might be that the Russian government has offered significant covert support to rebels in Ukraine, but the alternative, that most of the Russians there lack official support, is also plausible.
4). Realpolitik matters. The international stakes for the Western Hemisphere were high during the fight over Mexico, which dragged on as a semi- “frozen conflict” for nine more years after the Texans decisive battle as San Jacinto. The US government was initially reticent to annex Texas, despite the pleas of Texans fearing for their continued independence, because it feared war with Mexico and even possibly Great Britain and (to a lesser degree) France. Just as NATO allies today fear an expansionist Russia, Great Britain, in particular, understandably viewed an expansionist America as a threat.
In the end, however, the stakes for Great Britain were not high enough that it was willing to take a firm stance in favor of Mexico, especially without French support. Ultimately, it was the US fears of Great Britain cozying up to Texas and using it as a strategic partner to undermine or even someday invade the United States that tipped the scales in favor of the US deciding to annex Texas.
For Russia, the salience of Ukraine is similar to that of Texas for the US after the Texans won independence. Just as trade agreements between the Texas Republic and Great Britain were seen by many Americans as a first step toward an imagined future when British troops would be marching again on New Orleans or British abolitionism would breed a slave revolt in the American South, the visceral Russian reaction to closer trade ties between Ukraine and the EU, which ultimately started the whole recent chain-of-events, was a product of past historical strategic vulnerability and domestic feelings of insecurity.
While other parallels exist, in the interest of space, let’s move on to some crucial differences between early Texas and present-day Ukraine.
1). Russia has acted more aggressively and faster, than the US government of the 1830s. While Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of acting in a “19th century fashion” in Ukraine, it was actually the US government of the 1830s that exercised more restraint. Statements by Presidents Jackson and Van Buren indicated that they were keenly aware that the international community might not consider it acceptable if the US acted openly on Texas. While Putin at first tried to conceal Russian involvement in Crimea, and may be doing so now in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian government has been more than willing to weather international criticism and sanctions in order to pursue their agendas in the region.
2). Russians are far less divided on the justness of their irredentism than Americans were. Largely due to the divisive role of slavery in the United States, it took multiple votes and some legislative slight-of-hand to admit Texas to the union – and that by a mere two votes in the Senate. Russians, on the other hand, voted 443 to 1 to admit Crimea to the Russian Federation and, according to a Russian opinion poll, 65 percent support Russian volunteers in Eastern Ukraine.
3). Western opposition to independence in Eastern Ukraine is much stronger than British and French opposition to Texas independence. Modern day leaders and diplomats are less tolerant of any changes to borders than their 19th century counterparts, who were willing to offer recognition on a “de facto” basis. Even potentially friendly regions like Somaliland, which has had its own functioning government for decades, are shunned. Added to this is the affective dimension of Ukraine representing a David to the Russian goliath, and it’s pretty clear where the US and most other Western countries stand, if not necessarily the extent of their commitment to the Ukrainian government.
That leads us to the final part – if we’re to draw on the events of Texas as a guide, what should the US, and other Western countries do, and Ukraine do?
Probably the most important lesson from the Texas crisis of the 1830s and 1840s that might be drawn is that there is a whole lot more at stake than just the region in question. Had Mexico been willing to part with a relatively smaller amount of territory and offered recognition to the new Texas Republic, they might have avoided a much greater catastrophe later on when the US annexed about half its land later in the wake of the Mexican War (a war ignited over a dispute concerning the new Texas border).
Likewise, the threat to Ukraine is not that it will have to part ways with just a relatively small part of its territory eastern territory. The threat is that Ukraine will provide a justification to Russia to reclaim much more than just the currently disputed areas. Although maybe not the most likely scenario, policymakers seem to be ignoring the threat of Russian revanchism in the rest of Ukraine in favor of a narrative that has the Russians, emboldened by their efforts in Ukraine, turning their attention to the Baltic countries.
The Baltic countries are NATO allies, however, and that security commitment is almost certainly clear and strong enough to discourage Russian involvement. Ukraine, like Mexico of the 1830s and 1840s, however, has no clear alliance commitments, and is facing off with a rival that has clear military superiority. The only sensible course of action is to try to entice the rebellious populations of the east with offers of greater autonomy and decentralization, and, failing that, offer recognition to the new states of the eastern Ukraine. Guaranteeing their security would reduce the incentives that the new states would seek annexation with Russia and would enhance the security of the rest of Ukraine who could then get on with the business of working toward integration with the relatively peaceful and prosperous West.