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In 2016, at the Russian Geographical Society award ceremony, Vladimir Putin asked the nine-year-old boy Myroslav, a participant in the Olympics and competitions, the question: "Where do the borders of Russia end?". The boy began to answer honestly about the Bering Strait, which separates Russia and the United States. Still, Putin interrupted him with a phrase that later became iconic: "Russia's borders do not end anywhere." Then, explaining the words, Putin said he first used them in a conversation with an unnamed former US president "as a joke." But he immediately added that this expression also has a profound, "civilizational" meaning: "Russian peace" has a global character, Russian is one of the official languages of the UN. 300,000 of our compatriots live in Latin America alone." The remark about distant Latin America was supposed to soften these words, to point out that it is only about the cultural and migration "borders" of Russian influence. However, even then, in the Kremlin leaders’ imagination, not cultural but political and military borders of Russia were rapidly blurring, making permanent expansion into the territory of neighboring states possible. Using the example of Ukraine, this analysis aims to discuss how Russian propaganda blurs foreign and domestic borders — both mental, legal, and physical- and what tools Russians use to achieve this goal.

Blurring the boundaries with proxy-separatism

Already during the first act of aggression and occupation of a part of Ukraine by Russia in 2014, the tactic of not defining the borders of the invasion as such was applied outside the Crimean Peninsula. Crimea was occupied beyond the administrative borders of the autonomous republic, with quick official recognition of the occupation by the Kremlin. But all other territory of Ukraine was put "in question" by Russian propaganda and its agents in Ukraine. The initial processes of the so-called Russian Spring unfolded in many regions; a direct military invasion of Russian armed "volunteers" led by Igor Girkin took place in the Donetsk region; the critical point of this invasion was not Donetsk but Sloviansk as an intermediate point on the way to Kharkiv.

On the "Glazyev tapes", the adviser to the President of Russia, Sergey Glazyev, and the director of the CIS Institute, Konstantin Zatulin, discussed the financing of Russian agents and proxy organizations such as "Oplot" in Odesa and Kharkiv. Later, when the Russian Spring failed in these cities, and the units of the so-called "militia" began to be expelled from the cities of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Russian troops would have to intervene directly, but this would not be officially recognized, just as the declared ones will remain Russian occupation entities without Russian recognition "in the administrative borders" of Ukrainian regions.

Instead, negotiations will begin in Minsk, during which the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions will be recognized as subject to Ukraine but with a "special status." This "status", at least in the interpretation of the Russian side, provided for the de facto officially recognized loss of Ukraine's sovereignty over part of its territory. Among other things, the so-called Second Minsk Agreements ("Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements", signed on February 12, 2015) provided for "facilitation by the central authorities of cross-border cooperation in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with the regions of the Russian Federation". Crimea was not mentioned in the agreements. Thus, it was proposed to turn Ukraine into a country, part of whose territory is directly occupied and part of which is governed by imposed "special" principles with "special" rights for relations with Russia.

At the same time, the former adviser to the President of Russia, Vladislav Surkov, who worked on creating the Minsk agreements, admitted in an interview in 2023 that he did not expect them to be implemented. The agreements were supposed to be a temporary fixation of the gains of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the beginning of the erosion of Ukrainian sovereignty. However, the actual Russian borders at that time were still "fixed", although not internationally recognized in the part of the occupied Crimea.

In 2022, the situation changed and remained uncertain for several days. Late in the evening of February 21, Russia officially recognized the pro-Russian occupation forces without specifying which borders. After all, according to the "constitutions" of these entities, they claimed the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, of which they controlled only a small part at that time. This issue was fundamental since, in the case of recognition within the borders declared in the "constitutions", Russia would have to "help the republics regain control over the territory," and an open invasion was "inevitable". Various Russian government officials gave various vague answers as to which borders were in question, with most leaning toward the "de facto controlled territory," which for a time gave hope that an invasion would be averted.

Journalists have asked the speaker of the President of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, eight times which borders the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were recognized, but he was unable to give an unequivocal answer. On the evening of February 22, Putin said that Russia recognizes the formation within the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions but hypocritically added that he hoped to resolve "disputed issues" during the negotiations. The final answer to this question appeared on the night of February 23-24.

The limits of a full-scale invasion and the demands of Russia

The invasion of Ukraine took place immediately from the north, east, and south. It was accompanied by Putin's words not only about the meme-turned "denazification and demilitarization" but also about the rarely mentioned "right to choose" for "all peoples who live in the territory of present Ukraine" (a veiled declaration of intentions to further occupy the territory under the scheme of fake "referendums"). After that, talk about the administrative or actual "borders" of territories previously occupied by terrorists lost meaning. Another question arose — where will Russia be stopped?

The failure of the Russian "blitzkrieg" near Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and other Ukrainian cities, together with Russia's resource superiority, led to negotiations in Istanbul. During these negotiations, the Kremlin tried the same tactics as during the Minsk Agreements’ conclusion. The head of the Ukrainian delegation, Davyd Arakhamiya, said that Russia's primary demand was Ukraine's withdrawal from NATO, and Kremlin spokesman Vladimir Medynsky noted that Russia also demanded recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the "independence" of the territories occupied by Russia in the east of Ukraine. In exchange for this, Russia allegedly agreed to withdraw troops from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities in the north (which, to put it mildly, was dubious, given the purely military circumstances of the position of Russian troops in these territories in March 2022). But at the same time, it remains unknown whether Russia promised to withdraw troops in the south of Ukraine. Again, it is unknown what specific "borders" Russians demanded to recognize are in question. The negotiations in Istanbul ended without the signing and publication of any documents. Still, according to the available information, it can be concluded that their primary goal for the Kremlin and in Minsk was the temporary fixation of limited military gains (in the absence of an expected complete victory) and the further blurring and limitation of Ukrainian sovereignty.

In the fall of 2022, shortly before the successful de-occupation of most of the Kharkiv region and Kherson, the Kremlin decided not only to attack Ukrainian borders but also to deal with its own. In Moscow, Putin solemnly announced the "admission to the Russian Federation" of four regions of Ukraine. The territory of none of them was under the complete control of Russian troops, and very quickly, Russia lost the only regional center that had been captured since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. However, this did not particularly upset either the Kremlin or its propaganda because the decision to include the occupied territories of Ukraine was a strategic step that tactical (in the Kremlin's view) retreats could not affect.

The inclusion of Ukrainian territories, along with those that Russian troops have not reached, is a political statement that neither internationally recognized state borders nor the actual lines of military-occupied fortifications are decisive for the Kremlin's plans. Ultimately, Russia considers as its own the territory to which it arbitrarily designates itself at any time convenient for itself, without the limitations of legal and diplomatic norms and even without the limitations of accurate administrative and military control. In this context, Putin's old phrase about borders that "do not end anywhere" acquires its true meaning. It does not matter that Kherson or the cities of the Kharkiv region, which Russia planned to be "its forever", were liberated by the Ukrainian Defense Forces. In the Kremlin's view of its own borders, they still remain Russian, just as Zaporizhzia or Kramatorsk were declared as such. Moreover, if the borders between Ukraine and Russia were "canceled" by the Kremlin, then the affiliation of other Ukrainian cities should not cause any doubts. For Putin, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are already part of Russia, and Russians only need to bring them back under its control.

Putin's "elections" in the occupied territories and further plans of the Kremlin

One of the main confirmations of this vision of one's own borders is the way the so-called "Russian presidential elections" were held in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories. Before the simulation of these "elections", the Russian Central Election Commission announced that there were 4.56 million voters in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions "included" in Russia. Such data were obviously inflated and, as the Center of National Resistance informs, were based on Ukrainian pre-war data. At the same time, being a Russian citizen was not even necessary to participate in the so-called "elections" — voters with Ukrainian passports were also accepted [to vote].

This approach can be interpreted in different ways. The first is simply an attempt by the bureaucratic apparatus at any cost to screw up the final number of votes for Putin in "Putin's election." The second is the involvement of citizens of Ukraine with appropriate passports in the simulation of "elections" and the counting of "votes" based on pre-war Ukrainian data, which is part of a strategic approach to further blurring the borders and sovereignty.

Russia deliberately allows essentially foreign citizens to participate in its own "elections." This is because the participation of any citizen in them has little effect on the final result. Secondly, in this way, the Kremlin emphasizes that Ukrainian citizens are actually citizens of Russia, and Ukrainian territories are Russian, regardless of the state symbols with which these territories or citizens' passports are marked.

The strategic approach to the organization of elections in the occupied territories is also evidenced by Russian propaganda's launch of several commercials in which "military forces" participate in "elections" with the help of their passports or by receiving a Russian passport during the "elections". Researchers of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security emphasize that with such videos, "Moscow seeks to implant the topic of its "elections" into our information field, that is, to transform it in the minds of Ukrainians from an external event to an internal one."

It is significant that, according to the occupiers, medical assistance may not be provided to residents of territories under their control without a Russian passport. Still, it is possible to participate in "Putin's election" without citizenship. It clearly demonstrates the priorities of the Russian authorities regarding the population as such, not only in the occupied territories but also in their own territories.

In the latest messages from Russian officials, one can note that the Kremlin is ready for negotiations with Ukraine, only "considering the realities on the ground" and "geopolitical changes." However, what exactly is hidden under these deliberately vague formulations is unknown. Does Russia want its own recognition by the territory it has captured? Is it possible that we might be talking about the entire territory of the Ukrainian regions "officially" included in it? Does the Kremlin want something else? In December 2023, Putin called Odesa a "Russian city", which Russian propagandists took as a bid for future annexation. Earlier, in June 2023, he spoke about the possible need to create a "sanitary zone" on the territory of Ukraine. The deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, as usual after the beginning of the invasion, was more frank and specified that such a zone should be "along the border of Lviv" and that "these will be the new safe borders of what used to be called "Country 404".

The head of the Kremlin, although he does not speak directly about the future occupation of all of Ukraine, uses historical lectures at every opportunity, In which he tries to build a narrative in which Ukraine never existed, does not exist, and, most importantly, should not exist. He tried to prove this thesis in an interview with American journalist Tucker Carlson. He tried to confirm it by looking at the map of the 17th century, which the head of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, graciously presented to his superior with the words: "There is no Ukraine here!" (although it was actually marked there). From this point of view, the blurring of its own borders is not unusual for Russia since all of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's point of view, is a de facto part of Russia, and the legal option for registering this belonging is temporary and insignificant. The blurring of borders and boundaries is convenient for covering up Russian expansion, which, from Putin's point of view, is only the return of the territory that belongs to him as the new Russian "tsar". The only question is what other countries the Kremlin leaders will not see on the 17th and other centuries maps. In the end, will Ukraine and, in the future, other countries "unseen" by Putin be able to protect themselves and strengthen their borders against the Kremlin’s aggression?

Illustration credits: Natalia Lobach

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