British Foreign Secretary William Hague has aptly labeled Ukraine the “biggest crisis in Europe in the twenty-first century.” Indeed, he could have gone further.
The Russian intervention will reverberate beyond the continent, since it challenges the very principles of a stable world order. How this crisis plays out may determine whether the twenty-first century remains a time of great power comity, where patterns of cooperation dominate, or deteriorates into a bare-knuckled era of geopolitical competition.
Moscow’s intervention is testing several fundamental norms of world politics: It challenges established principles of sovereignty and nonintervention, it raises the specter of a return to great power spheres of influence, and it elevates the principle of nationality over citizenship. Moreover, it has already exposed, yet again, the weakness of collective security in the face of destabilizing action by a great power.
- Sovereignty and the sanctity of borders: Most obviously, Russia’s insertion of troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region and effective seizure of the peninsula constitutes a blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and of the nonintervention provisions contained in Article 2.7 of the United Nations Charter. While Russia has long maintained military installations in Sevastopol, home of its Black Sea Fleet, the Crimean peninsula has been part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory since its 1954 transfer from Russia by then Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. Ukraine has denounced Russia’s actions as a breach of the bilateral status of forces agreement between the two governments, and the United States concurs that international law has been violated. Beyond infringing on Ukraine’s borders and territorial integrity, Russia has challenged the most fundamental aspect of its sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force. Moscow’s “brazen act of aggression,” as Secretary of State Kerry has termed it, may be the clearest unilateral violation of another nation’s sovereignty since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It is not without precedent, however: In 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia to assist two breakaway republics—and has since reneged on its promise to remove its troops. Allowing Russian actions in Ukraine to stand now would gravely undermine the doctrine of state sovereignty, which remains—for all its limitations—a force for global stability.
- The resurgence of spheres of influence: Moscow’s intervention in Crimea cannot be viewed in isolation. It is part of a broader post-Cold War effort to consolidate control over Russia’s “near abroad.” Putin, who famously called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, has never sought to disguise this aim. To pull former Soviet republics into Moscow’s orbit, he has deployed numerous instruments, such as creating a “Eurasian Union” intended to rival the EU and selling subsidized natural gas to friendly neighboring countries. Provided its regional hegemony was secure, Moscow has generally conformed with international norms. But it has been willing to resort to force when challenged, as in Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine today.
Spheres of influence are nothing new, of course. During the nineteenth century, they were often explicit arrangements that helped avoid collisions and smooth frictions between the great powers. Later, during World War II, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Russian leader Joseph Stalin in 1944 worked out an infamous “percentages agreement,” which secretly outlined the respective influence that the United Kingdom and Russia might enjoy in postwar Eastern Europe. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who learned of these plans, would have none of it. The UN Charter, by enshrining the principle of sovereign equality, was intended to end such arrangements forever. Returning from Yalta, where the Big Three had met in February 1945, Roosevelt proudly told a joint session of Congress:
“The conference in the Crimea was a turning point—I hope in our history and the history of the world. It ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliance, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed.”
Ironically, of course, spheres of influence indeed survived into the Cold War in the form of tacit agreements between the superpowers. In Eastern Europe and the Caribbean Basin, respectively, the Soviet Union and the United States reserved the right to intervene to counter perceived threats to their respective strategic and political interests. (To be sure, the Soviet sphere was far more closed than the U.S. one). With the end of the Cold War, many hoped spheres of influence would become a thing of the past. But Russia’s recent moves—as well as Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas—suggest not.
- Reasserting the nationality principle. Putin and his hand-picked parliament have justified his seizure of Crimea as a move to protect not only Russian nationals but “compatriots”—that is, Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine. In advancing this right, Putin has essentially elevated (Russian) ethnicity above (Ukrainian) citizenship. Like Czar Nicholas I, who claimed responsibility to protect co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire, he is asserting Moscow’s inherent right to defend a wider Russian diaspora in neighboring countries, including the estimated 58 percent of Crimeans who are ethnically Russian. By suggesting that the nationality principle trumps state sovereignty, Putin has opened a Pandora’s box. All the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic to Central Asia, contain sizeable Russian minorities. Nor is Russia the only country in Eastern Europe or Central Asia with large diaspora populations: consider that more than one million Hungarians live in Romania, or that a quarter of the inhabitants in Tajikistan are Uzbek. Farther afield, not least in Africa, the frequent incongruity between ethnicity and citizenship becomes even starker—and devotion only to nationality invites anarchy. Putin has recently disavowed any intent to annex the Crimean peninsula. But his actions have empowered local Russian nationalists who may seek to take matters into their own hands, threatening a bloody civil war in Ukraine.
- Undermining international organizations: The crisis has exposed once again the limitations of collective security when vital great power interests are at stake. The UN Security Council, so feckless in stopping violence in Syria, is even more hamstrung in resolving the Crimea crisis, thanks to the Russian veto. Given P5 divisions, the most that the UN can offer is mediation by senior UN officials. With the UNSC unable to pass a strenuous resolution, attention has turned to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has played an occasionally valuable role in defusing other Eurasian conflicts, as in mediation efforts in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The United States and European Union have proposed that the OSCE provide observers to monitor the safety of Ukraine’s Russian population, thus removing Russia’s ostensible justification for intervention and perhaps providing Moscow with a face-saving “off-ramp” from the crisis. But OSCE decisions typically require consensus among the 57 members of the organization. And there seems little prospect that Putin, riding high, will feel much pressure to go along.
Consequently, Western multilateral institutions will need to unite behind an approach. The United States should press its G7 partners, particularly a reluctant Germany, to eject Russia from the G8. This step would have both symbolic and substantive benefits, ostracizing Russia from the high table of advanced market democracies, where it never truly belonged, and consolidating a Western forum united by shared interests and values. Simultaneously, the United States should ensure a solid front among its NATO allies. The alliance is under no obligation to come to the aid of Ukraine (a non-NATO country) and should avoid provocative actions, such as naval patrols near Crimea or mobilization on Russia’s borders. At the same time, it should provide unmistakable reassurances of support, as well as military assets, to its East European members, including the Baltic States, while indefinitely suspending any joint exercises with Russia. These steps are not likely, by themselves, to reverse Russian aggression. But they will at least provide a symbol of Western solidarity.