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Putin’s trashing of international norms will encourage rulers with malevolent ambitions

Putin’s trashing of international norms will encourage rulers with malevolent ambitions
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a concert on Red Square in Moscow on 30 September 2022 after a ceremony to sign treaties on the annexation of Ukrainian territories to Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Karpukhin / Kremlin Pool)

The recent sham referendums in four eastern provinces of Ukraine gives Vladimir Putin a pretext to annex them. But beyond this immediate outcome, Russia’s invasion is a punch in the solar plexus of the international norm of no territorial changes.

Vladimir Putin announced this week — in grand imperial style married to shoddy pop star glitz — that, henceforth and forevermore, the two Ukrainian Donbas provinces, as well as the provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, were now integral parts of Mother Russia. Thus sayeth the emperor — even if events on the ground tell a different story.

There are various problems with this declaration. The first, of course, is that the Ukrainian army has been successfully rolling back the invaders in the northeast, first around and beyond the city of Kharkiv in a well-coordinated, fast-moving push that stunned the Russian military, forcing many soldiers to flee as they abandoned their armour and other equipment in a scramble to save their lives.

Now, in a follow-up manoeuvre, the Ukrainians have liberated the transport junction town of Lyman, even further to the east, very nearly trapping yet more Russian military formations with a classic encirclement movement. 

Amazingly, that second advance happened almost simultaneously with Putin’s declaration that the four provinces (one of which includes Lyman) were now Russian and thus liberated from those dreadful neo-Nazis, drug dealers and thugs who rule Ukraine.

In Putin’s true rant of speech, he insisted those evil forces were acting on behalf of those appalling Western powers who remain eager to divide, conquer and colonise Russia, and then inflict all the satanic-style sins running rampant in the West. Vladimir Putin is decidedly not woke. 

This, of course, has made Putin’s land grab the only time in history that an annexation achieved initially at the sharp point of a lance has taken place even as the retreat from those same lands has begun and continues.

On the back foot

Whether the conflict will finally end with the withdrawal of all Russian forces from the entirety of Ukrainian territory — including a Crimea that was seized about eight years earlier — remains unclear at best.

What is, however, clear is the Russians are, at least for now, on their back foot militarily, with no easy way to reverse the tide given the Ukrainians’ increasing battlefield skill and a growing supply of advanced weaponry.

Putin’s grand strategy is in tatters. The challenge for him is to figure out how to end this mess without it looking like his vision of the re-establishment of the expanse of the czarist empire has been a total disaster, and thus grounds for someone to start a movement to retire him before things begin going to pieces inside Russia.

The call-up of 300,000 conscripted men for service — via a particularly botched effort that included some people up to age 60 and many who had never served in the military, despite the initial claim it was to call up trained reservists — will do little to stabilise the Russian invasion forces. This is because many of these newly conscripted, instant soldiers are unlikely to be deeply imbued with achieving Putin’s glorious special military operation, or even staving off military disaster.

This precipitate move must also take into consideration the reality that thousands of young Russian men have been fleeing the country to avoid the possibility of being conscripted, leaving by plane and cars to the few neighbouring nations that still permit visa-free entry for Russians. 

Lost empires

But it is a second problem of this declaration that is yet more important and it is one with still broader international repercussions. And that, of course, is the traducing of fundamental international norms of state behaviour. 

One aspect of this was the post-1945 retreat from empire and the unwillingness (or inability) of former colonial regimes to attempt efforts to reclaim their lost empires.

In the 15 years following the end of World War 2, the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Belgians eventually surrendered their colonial empires. Sometimes this only came about after losses in rearguard fighting, as in French Indochina, Algeria, Kenya, the Dutch East Indies, as well as the Portuguese African and Timorese colonies. Nevertheless, by 1975, the last of these empires had come to an end.

One empire still remained, of course, and that was the Soviet Union/Russia. But the Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire of subservient nations evaporated between 1989 and 1991.

Moreover, by the end of that period, even much of the old czarist empire across parts of Eastern Europe and through northern Asia was gone as well. This second breakup separated the old emirates of Central Asia, the Caucasian lands, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine (much of which had been captured by Russia at the end of the 18th century from a still older Polish-Lithuanian kingdom) from Russia.

The final result was more than a dozen new nations — 14 to be exact — and the remaining core of Russia. But even Russia still included ethnicities such as the Volga Bulgars and Chechens, many of whom continue to long for the possibility of independence. There is also a vast swathe of land on the eastern edge of Siberia seized from a decaying Chinese Ching dynasty in the 1850s.

Territorial norms

The international norm that increasingly took hold in the post-war world of 1945 onward has been one of the general inviolability of national state borders, save when one independent nation split into several new nations — largely over ethnic tensions or because of the ambitions of local actors eager to become national ones.

Such events included the violent breakups of Yugoslavia and Sudan/South Sudan, and the far more peaceful one of Czechoslovakia. In the years following the great wave of independence in Africa in the early 1960s, despite horrific disputes within nations such as the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia/Tigray, the never-ending crises in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia, or disputes over boundaries that have led to occasional warfare such as between Morocco and Algeria, the Organisation of African Unity and then the African Union and its members have consistently embraced the sanctity of national borders inherited from the colonial era.

There have been very few wholesale absorptions of one nation (in whole or in part) by another, following the territorial changes after World War 2 settlements. In some ways, this is a reaction to the conflict of that war.

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Most observers agree that in the period between the two world wars, it was the efforts of nations such as Germany, Italy, Japan, along with a few smaller nations, to gain total territorial control over other sovereign nations that broke down an international norm that had come to be established after World War 1. These territorial land grabs precipitated the outbreak of the second global war.

In the post-war period, there obviously have been numerous (albeit limited) violent conflicts, but the norm against the outright seizing of neighbouring territory and annexing it permanently has largely been upheld.

There have been several, usually less-than-permanent, exceptions to that rule, notably an effort by Iraq to annex forcibly Kuwait, Indonesia’s takeover of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor to make it a new province, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and Israel’s effective annexation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem (the rest of the West Bank has not been claimed officially as Israeli territory).

But none of these has been accepted and embraced by the international community as a whole, and, in several cases, the occupying nation has been forced to withdraw.

Nefarious threats

There have been other important international norms that have largely held since 1945, including the prohibition against using poison gas or biochemical warfare (with a few exceptions such as the Iraqi deployment of gas in its war with Iran, and the reported use against civilians in Syria by the forces of the Syrian government in association with Russian forces in the country).

There is also the norm of no use of nuclear weapons, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that brought World War 2 in the Pacific Theatre to a decisive end. But despite all the sabre rattling and two near-misses of crises in the early 1960s (Cuba and Berlin), the norm has held.

But Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces this past week is helping destroy that global norm of no forcible changes in borders.

As Tanisha Fazal writes in The Return of Conquest?, her article for Foreign Affairs:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has long declared that Ukraine has never existed as an independent country. The former Soviet republic is ‘not even a state,’ he said as early as 2008. In a speech on February 21 of this year, he elaborated, arguing that ‘modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia.’ Days later, he ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine. As Russian tanks streamed across the Ukrainian border, Putin seemed to be acting on a sinister, long-held goal to erase Ukraine from the map of the world.

“What made Russia’s invasion so shocking was its anachronistic nature. For decades, this kind of territorial conquest had seemed to be a thing of the past. It had been more than 30 years since one country had tried to conquer another internationally recognised country outright (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). 

“This restraint formed the basis of the international system: borders were, by and large, sacrosanct. Compliance with the norms of state sovereignty — including the notion that a country gets to control what happens in its own territory — has never been perfect. But states have generally tried to observe the sanctity of borders or at least maintain the appearance of doing so. Countries could rest assured that of all the threats they faced, an invasion to redraw their borders was unlikely to be one of them…”

The shambolic referendums by residents who were under close guard by Russian troops and whose balloting was carefully being observed (let alone the inability of the many hundreds of thousands of people who had fled the battle zone to be able to express any sort of voice in those votes) meant it hardly qualified as an internationally accepted effort for people to effectively exert their right of self-determination-style free choices about their political future.

This is true despite those starry-eyed comments from the ANC Youth League’s delegation in Russian-occupied territory at the time of the voting.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “ ‘A beautiful, wonderful process’ — ANCYL defends sending observers to Russia’s sham referendums in Ukraine

Instead, what this invasion has done is give heart and possible inspiration to nations and rulers who may well harbour irredentist goals or ambitions against neighbours. This could happen even if it should ultimately transpire that the Russians are driven from the territory of Ukraine as depicted on the world’s maps.

Moreover, all this increasingly truculent, loose, chest-thumping talk about using nuclear weapons in defence of greater Russia — against the supposed depredations of Ukrainians and the West’s nefarious designs — is also helping degrade a heretofore solid international norm against the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts.

Moreover, this kind of dangerous rhetoric could easily be deployed by other states’ rulers who might want precedents for their use of such weaponry (or at the least the continuing threat of their use) in a future conflict.

Taken together, the “special military operation” has now made the international system that much more unstable, in addition to all those other harms to global trade, supply chains for food, fertiliser, oil and natural gas, flows of refugees, as well as the still-growing, still-ongoing cost from the invasion to Ukraine’s people. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    This pathetic little nothing-nik of an evil wannabe emperor and mass-murderer has egg all over his face and he can’t bear it that finally a nation has stood up to him and is giving him the hiding of his life. Visions of grandeur and the hugely false, warped and brittle ego and sense of Russia’s place in the world are being ground down by the brave and skilful Ukrainians. Nothing but a vicious, brutal and diabolical KGB thug who deserves to burn in hell forever, along with his equally vile henchmen. God bless and save Ukraine, and may they go from strength to strength and kick these barbaric hordes out of the country🙏💪👊. The Russian people also deserve so much better.

    • Johan Buys says:

      The funny thing is he likes the tough man image – a James Bond character. His judo black belt was an honorary award (since been stripped). His KGB service was in East Germany in the fifth directorate : basically the arm of KGB that intimidated domestic opponents and artists with censorship, banning, etc.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Many international norms are trashed in Gaza and the West Bank, time after time, year after year in the name of ancient claims to territory. Chemical weapons in Syria and civilians bombed in Yemen: so-called norms have been ignored by dictators like Putin and NATO for over 20 years.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Read a book “Russka” by Edward Rutherfurd. It covers 500 AD to +/- 1930. It is a continuous tale/history of Russia being ruled by these Russian “strong men”. It is a must read for this Putin era.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Sometimes it takes a very tragic event for the world to reflect on the values and the purpose of the institutions that have been undermined by the super powers for years. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has forced the international community to really evaluate the UN Charter, mandate and international law and the responsibility of the super powers to act with circumspection and responsibility. To the tavern diplomat called Clayson Monyela you cannot justify a wrong with a wrong and the question would remain that what is the South African position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine and childish responses are not helpful and do not take our non – existent foreign policy anywhere. The rubbish of non – alignment does not wash when you are in a club of thugs called BRICS. On Monday a vote on Russian annexation will be held in the UN General Assembly and where South Africa stands would be watched or where the ANC stands. The rubbish of quoting other conflicts and lies about Libya when history has it on record that South Africa supported NATO in dismembering Libya and the murder of Gaddafi on the 2oth October 2011. The opportunity to actually get the US and Russia to respect the UN Charter and International Law has arisen and we must use the barbaric invasion of Ukraine to assert the UN authority on all member states. In the meantime, as South Africans we must salute the bravery of Ukrainians in standing against the Russian thugs.

  • Marc Ve says:

    Personally I believe this will end badly for Russia. But I also believe Putins actions don’t exist in a vacuum. There is much precedent for nations invading others “to protect themselves”. Some have even shown to be utterly fake (Iraq), some ended up a failure just like Russia’s current attempt (Afghanistan) and some are now trapped in a cycle of tit for tat reprisals that can never result in a positive outcome (Palestine). What’s missing is a legitimate World peacekeeping authority. The UN is not it.

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