The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Like the 19th-century U.S., Putin seized separatist claims to expand his empire

From Polk to Putin.

A person walking on the street is pictured through a hole in the wall of a residential building, which locals said was damaged by recent shelling, in the separatist-controlled town of Horlivka (Gorlovka) in the Donetsk region, Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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Fighting rages as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. Just days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his aggression by claiming he was recognizing the independence of two separatist regions, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics. It was clear from the beginning, however, that the separatist regions were merely a convenient excuse to justify a full-scale invasion of the country and expand “Greater Russia.”

The role played by these separatist regions in the war brings to mind the history of the Republic of Texas’s breakaway from Mexico on March 2, 1836, which set in motion the events that led to the U.S. invasion of Mexico and a massive land grab. Much like how Russia first recognized the independence of the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine before launching its wider invasion, the United States recognized Texas and soon thereafter invaded Mexico. By the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, Mexico would cede to the United States around half of its territory, including parts of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.

While historical analogies are inexact and the context of the world has certainly changed over the past two centuries, this story also reminds us that calling Putin’s move “unprecedented,” as many pundits and politicians in the United States and Europe have, fails to understand the long continuum of imperial expansions by powerful countries.

In the 1830s a group of mostly Anglo-American recent settlers in Texas sparked a rebellion against Mexico’s central government and declared independence. Echoing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Texas rebels began their manifesto with the words, “when a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the people.” Instead of “happiness,” the Texans inserted “property,” which, in their case, referred to 5,000 enslaved people imported from the U.S. South. Although Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, the colonists in Texas had been granted exemptions. Yet fearing the rollback of these exemptions, enslavers in Texas jumped on the independence bandwagon to protect the institution of slavery.

It was not just English-speaking White settlers who joined this effort. Tejanos, or Texas Mexicans, also had long-standing grievances with Mexican President Santa Anna’s authoritarianism and pushed for more regional autonomy under the banner of federalism. But some Tejanos ultimately supported the establishment of an independent republic, which happened in March 1836 — although Mexico declined to recognize its independence.

Some Republic of Texas leaders wanted the United States to annex the republic. Many had recently come from the U.S. South, and Texas was embroiled in conflicts with Mexico and Indigenous nations. Initially the United States did not incorporate the new republic into the union, mostly because the issue of adding new states where slavery was legal remained contentious.

But the United States ultimately annexed Texas in 1845, seeing its own territorial expansion as a path to economic prosperity. It also allowed slavery to persist in the newly created state. After annexation, the newspaper columnist John O’Sullivan famously declared that it was “America’s Manifest Destiny” to spread its power across the continent. “It was an independence, not only in fact, but of right,” which meant that divine providence was at work. O’Sullivan predicted that California would be next. As he put it, “the Anglo Saxon foot is already on its borders.”

Texas claimed its southern border was the Rio Grande river, but Mexico never ratified the Velasco treaties signed by Santa Anna that marked the boundary there. Mexico instead insisted that the border of Texas ended at the Nueces river, 100 miles to the north. War with Mexico began when U.S. President James K. Polk sent troops into the Trans Nueces strip — beyond that boundary. This provocation led to shooting between Mexican and U.S. troops that helped justify the formal waging of war against Mexico.

On May 11, 1846, Polk went to Congress to gain approval for a war on Mexico that had started a few weeks earlier. “After a long-continued series of menaces, [Mexicans] have at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our own soil,” he said. Although Mexico had never agreed to the boundaries claimed by the Texas Republic, Polk claimed that it was the aggressor.

In reality, it was Anglo Texans who had flouted Mexican laws, broken away from Mexico by force and it was U.S. Gen. Zachary Taylor who marched thousands of soldiers into Mexican territory.

But the United States was not just interested in this thin strip of land in South Texas. As O’Sullivan had indicated, the goal was to spread the “irresistible army of Anglo Saxon emigration” to the west. The boundary dispute served as an excuse to invade Mexico, occupy its capital city and send the U.S. Army all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1848, a prostrate Mexico was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding to the United States more than half a million square miles, about half of Mexico’s territory. By the end of the war, 13,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 25,000 Mexicans had died.

Much like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the 19th century began because of the actions of a separatist region. Texas separatists hoped that the help of a major foreign power — in that case, the United States — would serve their interests. U.S. leaders interested in expanding the territory of the United States seized the chance to claim not only Texas, but to invade Mexico.

These events helped set into motion another century of expansion. By the early 20th century, the United States not only extended to the Pacific Ocean but possessed territories including the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, not to mention landing its Marines in scores of countries in Latin America. By the beginning of the 21st century, the United States used its military might to expand its tentacles across much of the globe.

Today, the actions of two separatist regions in Ukraine may have set into motion a larger imperial grab by Russia. The Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in the eastern part of the country declared independence in April 2014. Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings and later held a makeshift and questionable referendum in which 90 percent of participants voted in favor of separating from Ukraine.

According to a poll conducted in April 2014, a majority of the population in Donbas favored some form of greater autonomy in relation to the central government, but they did not necessarily want independence or to become part of Russia. Regardless of the popularity of autonomy in these regions, what came next went far beyond local concerns or desires.

Russia didn’t immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk, even though some separatists there wanted to become part of Russia. For the past seven years, these breakaway republics existed in a nebulous state — not internationally recognized as independent, but also not under the control of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian military forces provided support to the separatists.

That changed when Putin ordered troops into the separatist territories before expanding his invasion to cities in central Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv. Whatever Putin’s claims to Russia’s historical connection to Ukraine might be, none of that justified a baldfaced imperial land grab and a brutal attack on a sovereign country.

But Putin’s actions are not without precedent. In fact, invasions of sovereign nations with weaker militaries have been the international norm for imperial powers for centuries — and the United States has been at the forefront of that legacy.

Today, we can draw important parallels between Putin’s declaration of war speech and Polk’s 1846 speech to Congress. Putin claimed that he had to invade Ukraine to stop “the genocide against the millions of people living there” and declared that an independent Ukraine was a threat to the “very existence of our state, its sovereignty.” Like Polk, Putin is seizing the opportunity created by the claim of independence to annex more land — and, he hopes, expand Russian power in the region.

In 2022, few Americans think of Texas and most of the U.S. West as the product of one of the biggest land heists of the modern era. Whatever success Putin has in redrawing the map in Eastern Europe, history reminds us that borders are the result of the past and continuing violence of empire.