Beyond its immediate implications for European security, the current crisis at the Russia-Ukraine border highlights the enduring importance of state sovereignty as an ordering principle in world politics, notwithstanding frequent claims that globalization has rendered it obsolete. It also exposes the tendency of governments to invoke, dismiss or reinterpret this bedrock principle to suit their situational needs. In fact, global stability now depends on whether the United States and European Union are able to reaffirm and defend the centrality of state sovereignty against a Russian attempt to dismiss it.
On one level, the Ukraine situation would seem to have turned long-standing Russian and Western rhetoric on sovereignty on its head. Russia, an erstwhile, self-styled champion of the Westphalian norm of noninterference within the United Nations, now has 100,000 troops poised to invade, seize territory from and perhaps extinguish the independence of its neighbor. Meanwhile, Western nations, which since the end of the Cold War have pioneered doctrines of “contingent” sovereignty—in which a state’s sponsorship of terrorism, commission of mass atrocities or participation in other bad behavior negates its authority—have become sovereignty hard-liners, characterizing Russia’s actions as a threat to world order and insisting on Ukraine’s absolute right to determine its own geopolitical alignment.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. The Kremlin’s ostensible defense of state sovereignty in the past has focused narrowly on protecting authoritarian regimes—including Russia’s own—from meddling Western efforts to promote human rights, democracy and open societies, as well as from military interventions. Russia has deflected, for instance, nearly all UN Security Council efforts to check Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which the Kremlin supports.
Here, the Russian attitude toward cyberspace and internet governance is instructive. Moscow insists that Russia and likeminded thugocracies have an absolute prerogative to govern the internet as they see fit, repudiating Western efforts to create international standards for internet governance based on the free flow of information and ideas. Yet at the same time, the Kremlin has few qualms about intruding in the cyber affairs of free nations, including via sophisticated misinformation campaigns and electoral interference, as it did during the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
Russia also shows little respect for the territorial integrity and political autonomy of states in its “near abroad.” Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union—an event Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century—the Kremlin has doggedly sought to expand its control over post-Soviet territories, from the breakaway province of Transnistria in Moldova to Kazakhstan. The most dramatic examples are Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, of greater import, its 2014 annexation of Crimea and arming of separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Putin appears determined to integrate Ukraine as well as Belarus into an exclusive sphere of influence, if not incorporate them into Russia outright. The West’s insistence that Ukraine must retain the sovereign right to join NATO, not to mention the European Union, is anathema to this agenda.
The Ukraine situation may seem to have turned long-standing Russian and Western rhetoric on sovereignty on its head.
Putin justifies his stance by arguing that Ukraine is not a real country, that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that, accordingly, Ukraine can only enjoy true sovereignty as part of Russia itself. This attitude derives from Ukraine’s symbolic centrality to Russian national identity as the birthplace of the Kyivan Rus, a medieval Slavic state from which today’s Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians trace their lineage. By this argument, the fact that Crimea, whose population is two-thirds Russian, was gifted to Ukraine by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev only in 1954 as “a symbol of brotherly ties” between the two peoples merely reinforces claims of Ukraine’s artificiality as a national entity.
As for the Donbass, Putin has referred to the region as Novarossiya, or New Russia, a term for it used by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken helpfully explained during a Jan. 20 speech in Berlin, Putin is “laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe Ukraine is a sovereign nation.”
Putin’s stance repudiates the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 pledge signed jointly by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, in which they agreed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty in return for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. Ever since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom have all insisted on the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, urging Moscow and Kyiv to settle the conflict in the Donbass through negotiations, using the Minsk Agreements brokered by France and Germany as a starting point.
The Biden administration and its European Union counterparts have labored to present a united front, despite European fears, especially in Germany, that doing so could jeopardize the multibillion-dollar Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Last week, NATO placed its forces on standby and raced to dispatch troops, aircraft and naval assets to its Eastern flank: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. According to Blinken, the Biden administration has been unequivocal in its conversations with Moscow: “We make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.”
And yet, trans-Atlantic solidarity is complicated by historical and more recent European experiences of sovereignty—not the sovereignty of others, in this case, but their own. Since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the nations of continental Europe have taken significant steps to pool national sovereignty in the common interest, including within the supranational institutions of the European Commission in Brussels and the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
These efforts have been far more impressive in the economic and, to some degree, foreign policy spheres than in the defense domain. The result has been an European Union that is an economic and diplomatic heavyweight, but a military bantamweight, embarrassingly dependent on U.S. military muscle and a U.S. supreme allied commander in NATO. Among EU leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most vocal in advocating for Europe to develop “strategic autonomy”—the ability to act alone—including through major investments in common defense. But Europe remains a civilian power, much to his chagrin and Putin’s delight. Moreover, the supranational incursions on national sovereignty have created a political backlash in some EU nations, including, most obviously, in the United Kingdom, where it served as a major impetus for Brexit, a step that arguably weakened the global aspirations of both the bloc and the United Kingdom itself.
Finally, there is the United States, which is still recovering from the diplomatic fallout of former President Donald Trump’s administration, when irrational fears about the loss of national sovereignty—best illustrated by the slogan “America First”—convulsed U.S. foreign policy and astonished even its most steadfast allies. Biden has since reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO, to the U.S.-EU partnership and to the defense of an open, rules-bound world. But the continued grip of Trumpism on the Republican Party has given policymakers and publics abroad grounds to doubt the country’s credibility and staying power, particularly given the prospect of another hyper-nationalist reversal after the 2024 presidential election. These doubts open the door to a potential fracturing of the West’s resolve, just as it confronts the most serious crisis to world order in decades.