Using the Texas annexation of 1845 to think about Putins’s motives

In 1845, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, a breakaway territory from the Republic of Mexico. This annexation created great hostility between the US and Mexico, leading to the Mexican-American war in 1846. The events are 170 years ago, so they aren’t relevant from a precedent perspective. But the broader circumstances are similar enough that the Texas annexation may give us greater insight into Vladimir Putin’s motives and options in Crimea.

My thinking about this issue began after my friend Marshall Auerback sent me and and a few friends an email saying: “In future years, a good essay topic for history students will be the following: Compare and contrast the Russian annexation of Crimea and the American annexation of Texas.”

Now, I remember my history so I knew what he was talking about. However, it wasn’t until I brushed up on the exact events that I realized how similar the episodes were. Here’s the basic fact set from the Texas annexation:

  • In Texas, a part of sovereign state of Mexico that had established independence from Spain in 1821, an increasing number of American settlers were taking up residence by the 1820s and 1830s.
  • Political and cultural clashes between the Mexican government and the settlers came to a boil when reformers switched the Mexican federal government to a new regime called the Centralist Republic of Mexico in 1835
  • The government passed the so-called “siete leyes” or seven laws, which amongst other things made Catholicism obligatory for everyone in Mexico. These laws were unpopular in several Mexican states including Texas. And secession movements began in those states, Texas amongst them.
  • In October 1835, the Texas Revolution began as Texas colonists took up arms against Mexican forces with Texas declaring independence in April 1836
  • In 1840, Whig Party candidate William Henry Harrison became the oldest President elected to office, only surpassed in 1980 by Ronald Regan. He died in office in April 1841 a month into his term after contracting pneumonia. His Vice President John Tyler – “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” – became President.
  • The Whig Party was torn by the slave issue. Though Harrison was born in Charles City County, Virginia like his VP, he represented Ohio and the northern states. Tyler, a southerner, was an advocate of US expansionism because of the slave issue that came to a head in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. And he saw the independent Republic of Texas as an opportunity to expand slaveholding states west.
  • In Tyler’s first address to Congress in 1841, he set the stage for annexation by talking up expansionism. He then proceeded to sell the annexation to the American public over the next several years.
  • Meanwhile the Texans were talking to the Mexicans about rapprochement with the UK acting as a mediator.
  • By 1844, the US was talking directly to the Texans about annexation in secret, signing a secret treaty in April 1844. Annexation occurred the next year.
  • This led to the Mexican-American War which Mexico lost in 1848. During that war, an “All-Mexico” movement sprang up, urging the US to take all of Mexico whole into the US. Instead, Mexico ceded its northwestern territories – present-day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, as well as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.
  • The very next year, gold was found in California.

These events have a lot of overlap with the present-day ones in Ukraine: the secession movement in Texas, the number of Americans in Texas, the expansionist agenda of Tyler, the perceived illegitimacy of the Texas secession by the Mexicans, the intercession of the British and the French (like the US and the EU).

So what can we take away from this episode?

I think it is interesting to look at the players and their 2014 analogues: Mexico is modern-day Ukraine, Texas is modern-day Crimea, the US is modern-day Russia, and Great Britain is the modern-day US.

If we think of Vladimir Putin as John Tyler, we can see the motive for Tyler was expansionism. For Putin, it may be re-expansionism. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia was prepared for the eastern Bloc to fall into the western European fold. But it also lost the Baltics, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. So Russia’s sphere of influence has been permanently diminished by the move eastward of the EU and NATO.

But Russia still has the former Soviet republics. In 1991, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed including Russia and its former Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Georgia joined in 1993. The CIS has broken though. Georgia is no longer a member, withdrawing over South Ossetia in 2008. And Ukraine and Turkmenistan have never ratified the CIS charter.

What Putin wants is an Eurasian EU that reconstitutes the Soviet Union via a free trade zone or a more tightly integrated unit like the EU. The Eurasian Economic Community is an idea that grew out of the CIS, with a proto-EAEC beginning in 1996 via the CIS customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But the EAEC has not been able to get off the ground fully. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members. But Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine are just observers.

If Putin cannot get the unit he wants through diplomacy, could he get it by force – i.e. annexation? Perhaps in part. We do know that with the Texas annexation, war began the year after. And when the Americans defeated the Mexicans, there was the possibility of the US swallowing Mexico whole. Instead, the US worked out a deal that hived off the northern part of Mexico. An analogous outcome would be war between Russia and Ukraine with Russia taking most of eastern Ukraine that was never a part of pre-1939 Poland. The western region captured in 1939 via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would remain a rump state of Ukraine including Kiev.

I am not the only one who is thinking this. Andrew Sullivan has a post up at the Dish which opines that Putin is just getting started. So I do think we should consider where this would head. My view is that Ukraine’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea is more important than what the EU and US do. It’s Ukraine as Mexico that is going to matter, more than the US and 1845’s Great Britain.

The bottom line for me here is that Ukraine matters a lot more to the Russians and Ukrainians than it does to the Americans and EU. Russia’s sphere of influence will be eviscerated by the EU’s incursion into Ukraine and Georgia. And Putin may be willing to take military action to prevent this from occurring. Having drawn a line in the sand, the US and the EU will be forced to ratchet up sanctions against Russia big time if conflict breaks out between Russia and Ukraine. And those sanctions will be crippling not just for Russia but for the whole global economy. Therefore, what happens then between Ukraine and Russia is what will set the course for the immediate global economy and the future balance of power, perhaps for decades to come.

I believe the Mexican-American War shows us armed conflict is indeed a possibility.

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