Territorial Disputes in Kashmir and Crimea

Disputed Territories of Today

This land is your land. Your land is my land.

Territorial disputes are nothing new to this day and age, but in the age of nuclear weapons, a falling out can have dire consequences. While the disputes in Kashmir, Crimea and Syria are currently flaring up, it’s far from the only current territorial dispute. Let’s talk about what’s occurring in Kashmir, the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan, and elsewhere in the world.

Territorial disputes occur when two or more entities lay claim to one land. Entity might be a vague word, but I want to be more inclusive than using a word like nations. Empires, territories, colonies, even New York and New Jersey fought over territory in their colonial days. Territorial disputes didn’t go the way of imperialism either. There are several swaths of land that are still in disputed jurisdiction. In fact, territorial disputes are so widespread, that I’m breaking this blog post into two sections. This first part will cover territory disputes that arise as a result of national identity. I’ve covered nationalism before as well as how nationalism can lead to independence movements.  Both of these posts were primarily focused on intrastate change, even if that change was a result of external pressure. A person’s sense of national identity, or even ethnicity, may lie with an existing state other than the one you reside in. That’s my focus today.  Here’s a few of the disputes I hope to cover in the first part of this series:

A Crime in Crimea

Insane in the Ukraine

Crimea hit world headlines in 2014 when Russia annexed it. The full story is more (but maybe not much more) nuanced than that. In 2014 the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych had been delaying the signing of an association agreement with the EU that likely would have been the first step in Ukraine joining the EU, which is often a precursor to joining NATO. Ukraine joining NATO – literally an alliance against Russia – is something Russia would take any measure to prevent. Eventually protests broke out across Ukraine trying to coerce Yanukovych to sign the association agreement, but he kept delaying. Before long it had turned into a full blown revolution forcing the Yanukovych to flee to Russia.

Appearances of “Little Green Men,” a moniker for Russian troops,  began in both Crimea and Donbass. Before long, a referendum was held in Crimea that, purportedly, had a 97% vote for joining Russia with an 83% turnout. Of course, those were Russia’s numbers who have had several accusations of vote rigging in the past. Perhaps even worse, the only two options on the referendum were join Russia, or return to the autonomous state of Crimea under its 1992 constitution. Anyone who was happy with the current arrangement wouldn’t have had an option to vote for. Even further, Russia’s human rights council accidentally posted the real results of the election, showing a 30% turnout with only half of those voting to join Russia. Further undermining any claim to legitimacy is simply the fact that the referendum violates at least 3 agreements the Russians signed with Ukraine including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine, the 1997 Ukrainian-Russian Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, and their agreement to keep their existing borders of in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse,

As of today, Crimea is effectively fully integrated into Russia and Russia continues to wage war in Donbass over additional territory to seize. There are over 10,000 civilian deaths, 24,000 civilian injuries, and 1.5 million displaced people as a result of this war, which rages on. NATO has delivered battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to deter any further incursions by the Russians.

Kashmir in Pakistan, India and China

The Kash Grab

Kashmir’s story has its origins in British Imperial history much like Hong Kong. When India won its independence from the British Empire following the Calcutta riots that left thousands dead, it was broken into two different countries in 1947. Pakistan formed as a Muslim state split into east and west, each side surrounding a Hindu majority (but secular) India.

Each province had been ruled by a prince, and that prince would choose which country to join. Every province but one chose, and you get one guess as to which one. The prince in Kashmir was a Hindu, but he was unique in that he ran a Muslim majority state. Because of this, he chose not to commit Kashmir to either India or Pakistan, and instead remained independent. The Prince, Hari Singh, then signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan, but India refused to sign it. As the rivalry between the new states grew, Pakistan pressured Kashmir to fully join Pakistan. Singh refused, and eventually the Pakistanis invaded. Singh asked India for help, and the reply basically said, you only get help if you join. Singh signed an agreement to nominally join India in the Instrument of Accession, and gained a special status as a semi-autonomous region. This portion of the agreement specifically is what was stripped in August and hit headlines.

The Instrument of Accession triggered the first Indo-Pakistani War in 1947. The UN mediated a cease fire that established borders that were intended to be temporary, but are largely still in effect today. Pakistan claimed that Kashmir had no right to join India due to their standstill agreement (despite pressuring Kashmir to join Pakistan), but more interestingly, an original document of this Accession agreement has never been produced, and the timing of exactly when it was signed in relation to when Indian troops arrived has been called into question leading to an accusation the Singh signed it under duress.

In the following years, China would take a small part of Kashmir from India, East Pakistan would declare independence in 1971 and become what is now Bangladesh, and Pakistani rebels would carry out several attacks that continue to this day and are labeled as terrorist attacks. In the 90s tensions between the states flared up again in an insurgency that left thousands dead. At this point both nations had developed nuclear weapons.

Map of Kashmir

To India, Kashmir is a rightful part of India and was legally turned over to it by its leader, and has spent every year since fending off relentless aggression by Pakistan in the form of wars and insurgencies or terrorist attacks funded by Pakistan, all of which have had significant civilian casualties.

To Pakistan, India’s argument of having Kashmir join them is shady at best. Why couldn’t an original be produced, and why were Indian troops there so soon? Pakistan also has legitimate human rights concerns. Indian forces have raped women,  burned homes, and killed dozens. Unsurprisingly, this has fueled outrage at India, and resulted in Kashmiris asking Pakistan for military training that they happily provide. Violence begets violence.

In August of this year, India sent in tens of thousands of troops, cut internet, imposed curfews, closed schools, and stopped SMS messaging in preparation for unrest before revoking Article 370 that had let Kashmir operate semi-independently for so long. Only in late October did some of these restrictions begin to be lifted. What will happen as Kashmiris are allowed to communicate to each other and the outside world will be worth watching. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is urging for UN intervention, and even went as far as writing an opinion piece in the New York Times.

A World Clamoring for Land

Korea, Western Sahara, Somaliland, and Cyprus

While those are the biggest territorial disputes occurring at present, they’re not the only ones. The Korean peninsula has had north and south claim the other since there was a north and south.

The Western Sahara has claimed independence from Morocco that annexed it peacefully in 1975. Most of Africa has acknowledged its independence, yet Morocco has not, and the area is still in dispute.

Cyrpus’ northern territory is claimed by Turkey due to its history in the Ottoman empire and significant ethnic minority of Turks. Of course, Cyprus claims it as its own.

In an even odder dispute, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in the 1990s. It has its own police, army, elections, enforced borders, and diplomatic relations with the EU, the Arab League, and other countries. It meets all the requirements to be a sovereign state except for one…being recognized as a sovereign state. How have territorial disputes worked out in the past, not only geopolitically, but also for the people who live in these contested territories? Let’s take a look.

Similar Stories in History

The Irish Troubles

The Crown Was Dublin Down on a Partition

Ireland has had a fraught relationship with the crown for, well, basically forever. The island of Ireland is broken into two separate countries. Ireland, which is independent, and Northern Ireland, which is a state of the United Kingdom.


Why then, is the island of Ireland divided between two separate governing bodies? This is certainly a question of how far do you want to go back for an answer – as is a lot of history.

Ireland and England officially joined with the King of Ireland Act in 1541 that made King Henry the VIII the King of Ireland as well. They were still two separate kingdoms, with separate parliaments, but were ruled by one king. They’d technically been kind of united before that due to weirdness with how the Papal states worked and the Norman Invasion, but I don’t want to get into that.

As tempting as it is to cover the religious wars of the 1600s between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant Brits, I want to keep this a bit concise since the other two stories are pretty large. Just know that the monarchs of Britain and Ireland imposed what are known as the Penal Laws to force Catholics to convert to the church of Ireland, which backfired and set the stage for centuries of friction. These laws prevented Catholics from holding office and confiscated their land.

With that background, I’m fast forwarding the to French Revolution in 1789. After overthrowing and establishing their new government, the revolutionaries wanted to spread their ideas of freedom of religion and speech and liberty to the rest of Europe. Ireland felt particularly inspired by these ideas (in particular freedom of religion since the church of England reigned over in a Catholic majority area), and before long a political group known as the United Irishmen formed in late 1791, early 1792. They sought to unite the Catholics, as well as the dissenters (non-Anglican protestants) and became a huge force for Catholic emancipation. This lead to the Catholic Relief Act that let Catholics vote and run for office…but not hold office. This, of course, didn’t mean much for political equality. Meanwhile, the British government expelled condemned the conquests that France was undertaking, and expelled their ambassador. In response, France declared war on Britain.

Now what we have is a group of Irishmen who sympathize with French Revolutionaries and their ideals, and these Irishmen have a king who is at war with France. Things got tense when the King discovered the United Irishmen were plotting with France in 1794, and abolished the group. This stoked the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was violently put down with the leader’s heads put on pikes. As a result, Act of Union was passed in 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament and brought Ireland and England ever closer politically, but ever farther loyally. This bill was also passed by the Irish parliament. How you ask? Well, only members of the Anglican church could hold office.

In 1829, Catholic Emancipation was finally passed by fully repealing the Penal Laws, but just 16 later the Irish Potato famine occurred in 1845. During the famine, food exports to mainland Britain actually increased making the situation far more dire than it would have been. This lead to widespread calls for the reestablishment of an Irish Parliament and even Home Rule. That would eventually lead to a full war for independence. Bills for home rule were put before parliament in 1886 and 1893, but were both dismissed. In 1912 it was proposed yet again but opposed by Protestant Unionists (mostly concentrated within a northern area called Ulster) who didn’t want to be ruled by Catholics. These Protestant Unionists, determined to remain part of the United Kingdom, formed a group called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and began importing arms. In response, the Irish Volunteers Force (IVF) was formed and smuggled nearly 2,000 rifles into Ireland. Home Rule was precariously passed as a half measure, but then its actual implementation was suspended when The Great War broke out in 1914. This document also contained a provision for Ulster counties to remain in the UK should they choose.

Taking advantage of the British distraction, a rebellion was planned on Easter in 1916 known as the Easter Rising. The rebellion was crushed over a few days, but 485 people lost their lives, over half of whom were just civilians. Its leaders were executed.

Destruction of the Easter Rising
The destruction of the Easter Rising

The Easter Rising had several implications that can still be felt today (as did the Great Famine, for that matter. Its population still hasn’t recovered.)

First, those who were executed were seen as martyrs, and this kickstarted a nationalist movement, which lead to the rise of the Sinn Féin Party – a left wing party that argued for a united and independent Ireland, and a party that still exists today. The British response had been far too severe, and Ireland’s independence movement gained momentum.

The Sinn Féin party won a landslide victory throughout the non-Ulster counties in December of 1918. They immediately setup an Irish parliament, and in January of 1919 Ireland formally declared its independence. The Anglo-Irish War was on.

The declaration prompted the British Police in Ireland to conduct raids and arrests on members of the Sinn Féin party.

The Irish Volunteer Force became the infamous Irish Republican Army, which carried out a number of guerilla warfare campaigns. In 1920, Michael Collins, a leader of the movement, lead an attack and gunned down 19 suspected British Intelligence officers. In response, the English Police force shot randomly into a football crowd killing 12. This incident was known as Bloody Sunday – not to be confused with the Bloody Sunday in the 70s.

As a result the UK government passed the government of Ireland Act in 1920, which effectively provided home rule, but it also provisioned two different parliaments. One was in Ulster, and one for the rest of Ireland to compromise between the Unionists and Separatist. Unfortunately, the Southern Irish government never functioned.

The Anglo-Irish War eventually concluded with Collins negotiating the Anglo-Irish treaty, which provided for the creation of an “Irish Free State.” The Irish Free State was basically a semi-autonomous realm of the British Empire – a lot like Canada prior to their 1982 Canada Act. The act also granted an opt out for the Ulster counties allowing them to remain fully in the UK if they so wished. The act, while intended to please everyone, made everyone unhappy. Ulster seceded from Ireland immediately afterwards. This gave Ireland its modern borders and sparked the Irish Civil War.

The Irish Civil War was a relatively short lived affair effectively fought between pro-treaty forces and anti-treaty forces backed by Sinn Féin. Those that didn’t like the treaty claimed that Northern Ireland’s secession and an Irish State that wasn’t completely independent violated the ideals of the Irish Republic. The war was won by the pro-treaty forces in 1923, but unfortunately the troubles wouldn’t end yet.

Ireland’s Free State dominion lead a trade war in the 30s, which eventually lead to its status as a fully independent republic 1937 when it drafted the Irish Constitution. However, the tension between the Protestants/Unionists and Catholics/Nationalists would come to a head from the 60s for decades afterwards in what we call the Troubles. The Troubles took over 3,000 lives (over half civilian) as the IRA fought for a united Ireland against those who wished to maintain the status quo – Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.

The Troubles are pretty complicated in an already complex quagmire of events, so I won’t go into the excruciating detail that I did above. However, what’s important to note is that it’s mostly a continuation of the above conflict that started as a Civil Rights movement. The IRA’s tactics turned from guerilla to terrorist bombing locations in both Northern Ireland and Westminster, as well as an assassination plot on Margaret Thatcher. It got bad enough to build walls known as Peace Lines to separate the Protestants from the Catholics, and these can still be seen today.

A Banner and Rubble in Belfast during the Troubles
A banner and rubble in Belfast during The Troubles

The Troubles would cease in the 90s with what’s known as the Good Friday Agreement (why all these events are named after Christian holidays is beyond me). The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that Northern Ireland is definitively part of the United Kingdom because the majority of people living there wish to be a part of the United Kingdom. However, it also acknowledged there is a plurality of the populace who would like to join Ireland. The agreement set forth that should there ever be a time that the majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish to leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland, they may. This may be why you’ve heard of Northern Ireland’s status during the Brexit negotiations. Ireland is still divided, and while there is peace, it is a precarious peace.

Why The Troubles Matter Today

Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom, especially in its history, has some parallels to modern Crimea. The will of its inhabitants were divided, and its ownership was debated between Ireland and the UK. Additionally, both countries underwent a full revolution for their independence. Nationalities also play a large part in all three conflicts as some of those in Crimea identified as Russian while others identified with Ukrainians. Kashmiris have historically felt an affinity to either Pakistan or India, but are sensing a growing sense of identifying as Kashmiris. Nationalistic ambitions have radically redrawn maps, in particular since the French Revolution. Compromised agreements can certainly secure a peace, but it is imperative to note just how precarious that peace can be. We saw the Anglo-Irish Treaty break into war again within just a few years. That peace was fragile, just as the peace in Kashmir is and any peace agreement in Ukraine would be.

This isn’t the end of my session on territorial disputes. Next time I’ll discuss how some territorial disputes are the result of wanting a buffer zone from an enemy. The idea of a buffer zone is being used to justify Turkey’s aggression against the Kurds in Syria. To understand historical precedents for a “buffer zone” we’ll dive into Polish History and, of course, Roman history.


Further Reading

On the Ukrainian Revolution (requires Netflix)

On the history of Kashmir

A scan of the Anglo Irish Treaty

Images and a history of The Troubles



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