Putin is Following the 19th Century US in Using Separatist Movements to Justify EmpireRoundup
tags: imperialism, Texas, Mexican War, Republic of Texas
Elliott Young is professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and the author of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System.
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.