Much western commentary about the Ukraine crisis has asserted that Russian intervention in Crimea has undermined the post-Cold War order based on the inviolability of borders and respect for the rules-based international system developed after the world wars of the last century and founded on respect for the United Nations’ Charter and other international agreements.
But if this order is being undermined, critics would argue the rot set in some years ago and the hypocrisy of both the western powers and Russia, which has been on full display in recent days, has played a role in its decline.
Since the occupation of Crimea by thinly disguised Russian forces began, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared publicly on several occasions that in the 21st century countries should not invade others for trumped up reasons and dictate what should happen from the barrel of a gun. In late 2002, John Kerry was a senior United States’ Senator and he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which after the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, was justified post-facto by the US administration as a war to bring democracy to the country.
In another critique of Russia’s actions, President Obama, echoing comments by leading European Union politicians, said countries should not be dismembered over the heads of their elected leaders. Yet, in 2008, in a choreographed sequence of events, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy first encouraged Kosovo to unilaterally secede from a Serbia, which had been democratic since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and then recognised its independence. Of course, the context is different from what is happening in Ukraine today, but the principles of the inviolability of borders in Europe agreed between the West and the old Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1975, part of the rules based international order, was breached.
Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. At the time, Moscow argued it was a violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity, which it clearly was, and that other states should not recognise a secession that was not mutually agreed – as for example the split between the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993 had been. The Russians also argued it would open Pandora’s Box by setting a precedent that other separatists would follow. The western countries that recognised Kosovo – and not all did – argued Kosovo was unique, sui generis.
Since then, Russia has changed its tune and ensured the precedent it warned of then was followed – by Moscow.
Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine and Russia specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, but Foreign Minister Lavrov is now indicating that if Crimea wants to secede from Ukraine and even become part of Russia that is fine, showing Moscow’s commitment to its publicly stated principles can be as elastic as that of its western critics.
Russia had already shown its less than firm commitment to the principle it stood by over Kosovo when it recognised the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, after the short military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow which broke out when Georgia took military action against separatist Ossetians in August 2008.
Some commentators shrug this off. They say what do you expect? Might is right and ‘twas ever thus with the way great powers behave.
But if the world’s leading states, some of which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which is the body meant to ensure global peace and stability, come to be widely perceived as cynically using and discarding the principles of a rules-based international system when it suits them, then that system, which is intended to protect both the strong and the weak, will be eroded further, and that is not in anybody’s interest in an increasingly contested and unstable world.
It may be that Russia would have intervened in Ukraine anyway given what it sees as its key national interest there, but the shifting standards of those western powers opposing its actions means diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis have been made more difficult and the case against Moscow in the court of global public opinion weakened.