On 21 March Vladimir Putin became the protagonist in yet another episode of the politics of annexation, one of the biggest global security challenges. On that day Putin signed the act of annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, following a referendum in which Crimea declared its independence on the question of separation from Ukraine and its unification with Russia.
Before the end of the Second World War the change of territorial borders was a permanent feature in world politics and a constant source of armed violence. Underpinned by revisionism and nationalism, the claim to “liberate” lands inhabited by conational population(s) fuelled wars of territorial annexation.
At its most extreme, nationalism defends the division of the world into territorial units where the borders of the national communities coincide with the borders of the state they inhabit, namely the nation-state. This task has been unattainable in the past given the demographic composition of most world regions since only a handful of countries could qualify such a division.
Since 1945, state borders have been sacrosanct: the bitter experience of two World Wars led to the inclusion of the respect of the territorial integrity of states in the UN Charter – a core principle of world politics. This norm was deemed so important that even during the decolonisation movements (1950-1980) the administrative borders of the former colonies became the international borders of the new independent states – no change on borders was permitted.
Until the end of the Cold War the international community exercised a firm policy on secession, outside the decolonisation context. Only Bangladesh became independent, after its separation from Pakistan. European borders remained stable in the second half of the twentieth century, with major changes occurring only as a result of the collapse of the former Eastern Bloc.
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union altered the geopolitical map but also posed new challenges with regard to the change of territorial borders. Ethnic minorities became majorities under new administrative borders and vice versa. Especially in former Soviet Republics, ethnic Russians became a minority in many new independent states – a point of ongoing friction between Russia and its neighbours.
The Crimean crisis sets a perilous precedent for international relations by reintroducing territorial annexation (also called irredentism) to world politics. Putin, in his speech to the Russian Parliament on 18 March, referred to an historical injustice that was remedied through the return of the Crimea to its “home”, leaving no doubts about the aims of Russian foreign policy.
There is a queue of unrecognised entities in the former Soviet space, all supported by Russia, that have expressed willingness to join the Russian Federation when this is deemed appropriate by Moscow — including Transdniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Claims to lands as a cause of historical injustice are found in many parts of the world. Many ethnic groups are spread across more than one country elsewhere in Europe, but also in Africa and Asia. There is a risk that other countries with ethnic minorities across the borders will seek to imitate Russia’s modus operandi in Crimea with unpredicted consequences for global peace and security. Moreover, the recent upsurge of far-right nationalism is also an indicator of a possible relapse to territorial revisionism which ultimately may lead to large scale violence.
The responsibility of the West is to promote a global response to a global security threat, without resorting to ad hoc solutions that have often proved vulnerable to criticism and political manipulation — such as Putin’s comparison to Kosovo.
It is time for the international community to formulate a universal norm which will reconcile the territorial integrity of the states with the self-determination of the people. The clash of these two principles and the reluctance of the international community to formulate a global standard has been the source of ongoing conflict in a changing world where the territorial integrity of states cannot be taken for granted.