Ukraine and the Death of Territorial Integrity

A cornerstone of international order continues to rot.

The unfolding events in Ukraine threaten international peace and security in a manner that goes beyond the immediate crisis. Russia’s increasingly brazen violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity threatens to undermine the widely accepted principle that international borders are not subject to further revision, a principle that has contributed significantly to a global decline in interstate war in recent decades. The United States and its allies have limited means to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, but upholding the principle of territorial integrity will require a sustained refusal to acquiesce to Russia’s actions.

Conflict over European borders has a horrific history. The specter of Munich and Lebensraum led states to adopt the territorial integrity of states as a core principle of the post-1945 world order, one that transcended the Cold War divide. Since Saddam Hussein’s disastrous push to conquer Kuwait was reversed in 1991, no state has attempted the overt conquest of another. To be sure, states have frequently skirted the edges of this prohibition, such as in Milosevic’s support for Republika Srpska during the Bosnian war, but they have not crossed it. Respect for the territorial integrity of states has become one of the most widely accepted rules of international behavior over the past several decades.

Over this same period, the incidence of war between states has plummeted throughout the world. While many factors likely played a role in this decline and debates over the relative importance of each continue, academic research has increasingly emphasized the importance of settled borders in reducing the likelihood of conflict between states.

In recent years, however, the international consensus surrounding the principle of territorial integrity has begun to erode. Many commentators have cited the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and Russia’s subsequent recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as prologue to the current crisis, but from the Russian perspective the erosion of this principle began earlier. The independence of Kosovo from Serbia was the first incidence in decades of widespread (though still far from universal) international recognition of a secessionist territory over the objections of its former state. Russian president Medvedev wrote at the time, “[i]n international relations, you cannot have one rule for some and another rule for others.”

The current crisis in Ukraine highlights the danger that the erosion of the consensus surrounding the territorial integrity of states poses. Almost any state could have its borders called into question for dividing ethnic groups or being historically artificial. The history of past partitions suggests that attempts to re-sort populations and borders would be as likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and intense violence as to alleviate these tensions. The post-1945 emphasis on the combination of territorial integrity and the protection of minority rights remains the only viable, albeit imperfect, solution for the minimization of such conflicts.

Support for the principle of territorial integrity may unfortunately conflict with the imperative to settle the current crisis with a minimum of bloodshed. In the near term, for example, Russia’s continued control of Crimea may be the price for preventing an escalation to outright war and the spread of the conflict throughout Ukraine. The avoidance of war should, of course, be the priority for all parties.

Regardless of the situation Russia creates on the ground, however, the United States and the broader international community should persist in their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Russia’s actions. While Russia has not claimed the Crimea or other parts of Ukrainian territory as its own, and indeed is unlikely to formally do so, if military invasion to establish autonomous client regimes were to come to be seen as a legitimate means of protecting minority rights, the effects would be equally destabilizing.

Whatever punitive diplomatic or economic actions are taken should continue until Russia again respects the many international agreements it has previously signed guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Eventual acquiescence to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as occurred following the 2008 war with Georgia, could have destabilizing consequences, and not just for other countries with ethnic Russian minorities. While the 1991 Kuwait war bolstered the credibility of the international community in enforcing the principle of territorial integrity, this credibility would be weakened, perhaps deeply, by acquiescence to a de facto, or for that matter a de jure, partition of Ukraine. There remain a number of revanchist states throughout the world that could change their calculations regarding the use of force as a result.

There are clear limits to the steps that the United States and its allies should be willing to take to reverse Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, establishing that such behavior can lead only to pariah status in the international community is necessary for maintaining the principle of territorial integrity that has contributed much to the growing peacefulness of the world.

Bryan Frederick is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: Flickr/Rocky Lubbers. CC BY 2.0.