DeSantis, the Territorial Itch, and America’s Real Threat

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got into a heck of a lot of trouble a few weeks ago when he called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute.” All the usual left-wing savants told us he didn’t know what he was talking about. The military-industrial-educational complex threw a hissy fit: they knew so much more than the Yale graduate, and they wore that knowledge on their sleeves with a vengeance. 

Probably most of them were “educated” in public schools—“educated” in scare quotes, because public education really is really scary: you could spend a lifetime there and learn nothing. Or nothing useful. Maybe just how to have sex with an icebox. 

A quick European history lesson is revealing and shows either the depth of the ignorance of the chattering classes or their perfidy.

The British Empire was once the largest empire in history, with colonies and territories spanning the globe. Decolonization and the granting of independence to many former colonies, however, resulted in the reduction of the British Empire. Today, the United Kingdom consists of the island of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and a few overseas territories.

All of this is just to say that for the British, control of territory changed—a lot—over the years. What are the chances such could also be true for other countries?

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, at its 14th century peak, was the largest country in Europe! It stretched from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Black Sea in the southeast. It encompassed vast territories that included not only present-day Lithuania but also parts of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia. Who knew? 

Spain was once a vast empire that included territories across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, but it gradually lost control over most of its colonies through the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, Spain’s territories are limited to the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, and two enclaves in North Africa (Ceuta and Melilla).

Portugal, like Spain, had a significant colonial empire that stretched across several continents. It also lost most of its colonies during the process of decolonization in the mid-20th century. Today, Portugal’s territories include only mainland Portugal and the autonomous regions of Madeira and the Azores.

The Netherlands had an extensive colonial empire, including territories in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The process of decolonization led to the independence of many former Dutch colonies, however, such as Suriname and Indonesia. The Kingdom of the Netherlands now consists of the European part of the Netherlands and several Caribbean islands.

Sweden was once a dominant power in northern Europe and controlled territories that included parts of present-day Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Russia. But military defeats and territorial losses in wars, such as the Great Northern War, resulted in the reduction of Swedish territories. Today, Sweden’s boundaries are limited to the Scandinavian Peninsula and some nearby islands.

Times change. And the map changes, too.

Likewise, things have changed for Ukraine. Ukraine controlled a lot more territory in the past than it does today. Prior to the 20th century, Ukraine was part of various states and empires, and its borders (i.e., territory) fluctuated over time.

During the period of the Russian Empire, which encompassed Ukraine, the territory was larger than it is today. With the collapse of the Russian Empire following the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent turmoil of the Russian Civil War, however, Ukraine declared its independence in 1918 and established the Ukrainian People’s Republic. At that time, Ukraine’s territory included not only present-day Ukraine but also parts of what is now Belarus, Moldova, and Russia.

This independence was short-lived, however, as it faced internal conflicts and external pressures (plus ça change?). It was eventually absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922 as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR). Under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian SSR experienced various territorial changes, including territorial gains and losses.

In terms of territorial reductions, one notable event was the transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. This transfer remained within the Soviet Union, however, as both entities were part of the larger union.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained independence as a sovereign nation. Even after independence, however, Ukraine’s borders experienced further adjustments—the most significant of which was in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, resulting in the de facto control of the peninsula by Russia. Additionally, ongoing conflicts in eastern Ukraine with separatist movements have resulted in the loss of control over parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

It is clear that Ukraine had a larger territorial footprint in the past, and it is also clear that Ukraine might want to have some of its territory back. One can sympathize with that, while still calling any attempt to “adjust” territorial claims a “territorial dispute”—which is what DeSantis did.

For this he was roundly criticized by all the usual suspects—those who have never seen a war they didn’t want to join. But it is hard to see why.

International borders have been changing for centuries. Let us look after our own borders (now being overrun by illegal aliens from all over the globe without a peep from the glitterati). Let us not get involved in the territorial disputes of other nations when those disputes don’t threaten us.

We have seen from Russia’s conduct in this war that, though it may (and some say “will”) defeat Ukraine in the end, it is not a threat to us. We do face a serious threat from China, and we should not allow a territorial dispute in Europe to distract us from the real danger that threatens us and the free world.

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About Daniel Oliver

Daniel Oliver is chairman of the board of the Education and Research Institute and a director of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was executive editor and subsequently chairman of the board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Email him at Daniel.Oliver@TheCandidAmerican.com.

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