Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s invasion has demolished the idea of Russian invincibility. Everyone knows Russia is not the unbeatable empire Moscow was at pains to portray itself as both outwardly and inwardly. And just as Russia is trying to claim Ukraine as its own, other countries are eyeing chunks of Russian land, spotting an opportunity as the war shows just how weak the Russian army is. Nations within Russia are waiting for the right time to oust the bully. The Kremlin should be wary of promoting a world where it is acceptable to seize territories through force; it only invites others to join in 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 the Soviet Union’s illegal occupation of them 77 years ago”. That annexation saw the expulsion of Japanese people from the southern islands, and since then, the countries have failed to reach a compromise. Talks broke down when Putin showed he was not willing to share lands but only to gain new ones.
Then China started drawing maps marking part of Siberia and the Russian Far East region as originally Chinese. Great areas of Chinese land were annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Unable to claim this territory back in a peaceful way, Beijing has pursued economic expansion around Baikal and has been actively purchasing and leasing lands near the border. In Poland, there are narratives suggesting that Russia occupied the Kaliningrad region in 1945, and that Warsaw has the right to claim it. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and even Ukraine could also stake interests in vying for Russian lands. Russian fighters infiltrating the Belgorod region under the Ukrainian flag served as a reminder to 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 turning Russian border regions into “national republics” is seen as a welcomed payback for Moscow’s deeds in the Donbas.
As Moscow pursues the expansion of its European borders, national autonomies in Russia and their exiled leaders envision the decolonization of Russia, dreaming of dividing it into 34 independent states. For now, national liberation movements are absent due to oppression and persecution within Russia. When the Soviet Union fell apart, several regions of Russia declared their state sovereignty but were silenced. These regions have constitutions stating 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 well-founded fears of a possible cascade of sovereignties in Russia. The Russian economy relies on resource redistribution from the regions to Moscow. The prospect of gaining control over their own finances could prompt local elites to seek independence. The destruction of Chechnya showed other nations that were forcibly joined to Russia how Moscow handles “separatists”. Still, the Kremlin pushes the population of these regions to the edge, throwing their men into the battlefield in Ukraine as cannon fodder.
The poorest regions in Russia were affected by conscription the most. Anti-war rallies have taken place in Dagestan, Kalmykia and Buryatia, with the republics’ leaders speaking out against the conscription. They feel they are treated as second-class citizens based on ethnicity compared to those residing in St. Petersburg or Moscow. The mounting number of caskets delivered from the front line to small towns and villages further fuels the flames. Once ignited, the liberation movement could sweep through numerous regions, leaving the regime with only those territories firmly aligned with the Russian narrative and unwilling to break free from imperial rule. The Ukrainian government believes that Russia’s imperialistic ambitions must end with justice for everyone. It has recognised the Kuril Islands and Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as temporarily occupied by Russia and supports the exiled politicians of Russian national minorities. Ukraine insists that to achieve a prolonged peace in Eastern Europe, Moscow’s troops must leave not only Crimea and Donbas but also Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh. It is an idealistic dream, almost impossible, because Putin won’t give up an inch of land for free. Still, Moscow would be wise to watch its back. It may end up reaping what it has sown as Russian lands prove too tempting for its neighbours – and its oppressed citizens.