What makes a nation-state? That question is not just the stuff of esoteric academic debates. It lies at the heart of two of the most dangerous military confrontations in the world. Russia might be on the brink of a wider invasion of Ukraine because its president, Vladimir Putin, doesn’t accept Ukraine’s sovereignty, while China might someday find itself at war with Taiwan because its president, Xi Jinping, doesn’t accept Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Putin actually said in 2008 “that Ukraine is not even a state,” and in July he published a lengthy article making the case that “that Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole.” In his telling, nefarious foreign powers, “radicals” and “neo-Nazis” pursuing an “anti-Russia project” have sought to lure Ukrainians from their rightful place under Moscow’s wing.
Also in July, by a sinister coincidence, Xi gave a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in which he declared that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.” In his view, Taiwan is merely a renegade province — and one that needs to be reunited with the mainland, pronto.
These assumptions, widely shared by ordinary Russians and Chinese as a result of incessant regime propaganda, are based on a tendentious reading of history. Beijing has not exercised continuous control since time immemorial over Taiwan — nor Moscow over Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have shared origins in Kyivan Rus, a state founded by Vikings in the ninth century A.D., but after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the Russian and Ukrainian territories went in different directions. Most of what is now Ukraine came to be ruled by Poland and Lithuania for 400 years. A separate Ukrainian language developed along with separate religions. (Many Ukrainians became Catholics, while the Eastern Orthodox followed the patriarch of Kyiv, not Moscow.)
By the end of the 18th century, a rising Russian Empire had annexed most of the Ukrainian lands. The czars tried — and failed — to suppress the Ukrainian language and national identity. When the 1917 Russian Revolution broke out, Ukraine declared independence before being forced by the Red Army into the new Soviet Union in 1922. The great suffering inflicted by Joseph Stalin a decade later during a Communist-orchestrated famine, when millions of Ukrainians were forcibly starved, further alienated many Ukrainians from Moscow. During the 1940s to 1950s, Ukrainian guerrillas resisted Soviet rule. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, more than 92 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence.
As for Taiwan, while some Chinese settled there as early as the 7th century, they were vastly outnumbered by the aboriginal inhabitants. In 1642, the Dutch East India Company took control of the island, known to Europeans as Formosa. Two decades later the Dutch were evicted by a Chinese rebel force that used the island as a base to resist a Manchu (i.e., Manchurian) invasion of Ming China. Only in 1683 did the Manchus take the island, inaugurating two centuries of mainland Chinese rule. But in 1895 China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War led to Japan’s annexation of Taiwan; Japanese troops crushed a Taiwanese attempt to declare independence. In 1945, after the end of World War II, Taiwan was incorporated into Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist regime. Two years later, Nationalist troops brutally suppressed an indigenous uprising. When the Communists seized power in Beijing in 1949, Chiang fled to Taiwan with his remaining forces.
While modern Taiwan has never formally declared independence for fear of provoking Chinese reprisals, it has been a de facto, sovereign state for the past 73 years. (Indeed, it has been ruled from the mainland for only four of the past 127 years.) Ukraine, meanwhile, has been free of Russian control for 31 years now — minus, of course, Crimea and the eastern Donbas region seized in a previous Russian assault in 2014.
In neither country is there any widespread desire to give up self-rule for imperial control. A 2020 Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Taiwanese adults see themselves as just Taiwanese and a third see themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese; just 4 percent see themselves as only Chinese. Meanwhile, polls show that more than 80 percent of Ukrainians continue to support independence and that 72 percent regard Russia as a “hostile state.”
Ukraine is far weaker militarily than Russia, and Taiwan is far weaker than China. So if you believe, as Mao Zedong did, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” then their fate is sealed. But, if you believe as the Founding Fathers did, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” then Ukraine and Taiwan — democracies both — are actually more legitimate states than the dictatorial Russian and Chinese regimes.
Let there be no misunderstanding: If Putin expands his offensive against Ukraine, or if Xi launches an attack on Taiwan, these will not be wars of “national reunification.” They will be wars of aggression against sovereign states that should be resisted by all law-abiding nations with every means at their disposal.