The Anatomy of Annexation: How a 2010 ICJ Ruling Destabilized International Law to Putin’s Benefit

The Anatomy of Annexation: How a 2010 ICJ Ruling Destabilized International Law to Putin’s Benefit

It is the West that created the legal precedent which Vladimir Putin utilizes to this day.

Yet the wholesale dismissal of an opinion on Kosovo by the West threatened to be even more damaging. The judges therefore had a thin line upon which to tread: a need to apply the tenets of international law, but also to bring the international community with it.

The conclusion in the Kosovo case was narrow and, in my opinion, wrong. It failed to give a meaningful answer to the question. It ruled that the declaration of independence itself (the document, not what it said) did not violate international law—as if this were an issue of free speech. Whether the act of secession was in accordance with international law was left entirely unaddressed. Nor did the court’s conclusion express an opinion on whether Kosovo’s recognition by third parties was contrary to international law. It stated:

“The Court does not consider that it is necessary to address such issues as whether or not the declaration has led to the creation of a State.”

This may have satisfied the West. But as a dissenting judge would write, it was clearly inadequate: “the unilateral declaration of independence … was not intended to be without effect. … It was the beginning of a process aimed at separating Kosovo from the State to which it belongs and creating a new State.”

Consequently, the ICJ advisory opinion at once justified nothing and everything. It opened the space for diametrically opposed interpretations. The Kosovo Albanians, having achieved recognition from UN member states upon its declaration, had not been found to violate international law. Yet in not confirming Kosovo’s statehood, we in Serbia—and those that did not recognize Kosovo—felt the principle of territorial integrity still applied: the self-proclaimed state was an illegal entity. In reality, nothing had been resolved.

Moreover, it sent a signal to the rest of the world: independence movements could now proclaim independence risk-free, leapfrogging the national jurisdictions that bound them, with recourse to an advisory opinion in international law. Statehood was to be reliant on others’ recognition, rather than being situated, as in the past, within international law. Th e UN member-states were free to make up their own minds on whether to support them—and would do so based on who their allies were. In other words, on political—not legal—grounds. The same question the ICJ avoided answering in the case of Kosovo now stares at them from the trenches of Ukraine.

No right to secession, nor the necessary conditions for it, had been established by the ICJ’s advisory opinion. Rather, a muddling precedent had been drawn into the architecture of international law. Contained within were the seeds of instability. Cross the Black Sea from Ukraine, and its damaging effects are today visible in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus.

Failure in the South Caucasus

On 14 September 2022, the guns fell silent in the South Caucasus. Yet another ceasefire had been agreed to Europe’s longest running conflict. Nearly 300 Armenians and Azerbaijanis had died in the flare up, the most significant since the Second Karabakh War came to an end on November 10, 2020.

The conflict over Karabakh has been intractable. The region was once an autonomous province within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the ethnic Armenian leadership of the province declared independence in 1991, setting off a war between neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan. The result would leave the former in control of around one-fifth of the latter’s territory. In 1994, following a ceasefire that ended the First Karabakh War, it then became one of many post-Soviet frozen conflicts—alongside Transnistria in Moldova, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. In 2020, the dispute heated back up: a short conflict (the Second Karabakh War) saw Azerbaijan recapturing back much—though not all—of its territory.

At the beginning of the conflict, international law appeared unambiguously to be on Azerbaijan’s side. In 1993, four separate UN Security Council resolutions, which are legally binding, would reiterate that the Armenian “occupying forces” should withdraw. Each would be ignored by the Armenians, who at first rested their case in ancient history, backtracking on their commitment to the UN Charter. Having only recently joined the UN along with Azerbaijan, as freshly independent countries, they had agreed that Soviet-drawn borders would form each other’s territorial integrity.

However, when Kosovo’s claim to statehood was not rejected by the ICJ, Armenian separatists then presumed the law to be on their side. The West’s assertion that it was sui generis fell on deaf ears: “That (ICJ) decision has an extremely important legal, political, and moral significance and sets a precedent that cannot be confined to Kosovo,” the unrecognized government of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic stated.

Like in the case of Kosovo, Azerbaijani offers for autonomy status were rejected by the Armenians, who now believed their right to self-determination would lead to their recognition as a state—eventually. Western partners did not help. Beginning to draw from temporary “facts on the ground” as a given, its commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan waned.

In 2008, a UN General Assembly resolution was passed that reaffirmed “support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan” and demanded the “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” The United States and France voted against it. Many other Western powers abstained.

Proclaimed absolute in Ukraine and irrelevant in Serbia, the cornerstone principle of territorial integrity was now perceived to be ambiguous in Azerbaijan. Such inconsistency cannot be cited on the grounds of vast differences in space and time. They all happened in a thirty-year arc across the post-communist world. Everything, it seemed, was permissible. Nothing was principled.

Negotiations to diplomatically resolve the conflict dragged on meaninglessly. Pent up frustrations would spill over into the 2020 Second Karabakh War. That is partially a result of Kosovo: the Armenian leadership felt legitimized to hold out until its independence claim could be recognized; Azerbaijan felt its territorial integrity was the trump card. Without a shared common understanding of international law, the space for compromise did not overlap. With the peace process at a dead end, flexions of force became the only way to change the status quo. Two years after the Second Karabakh War in 2020, no peace settlement has yet been signed and the situation at the un-delineated international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains uncertain.

The Coming Disorder

Western territorial integrity fudges are becoming unstuck. In the immediate post-Cold War unipolar world, inconsistency was perhaps tenable. Global order and its stability were underwritten by U.S. might and supremacy. Allies were backed over principles because nobody had the cleft to challenge the West.

Today, the world is multipolar. Smaller countries coalesce around various centers of power based on their interests if it suits them. Whilst America is still the preeminent power, its relative authority has waned. In hindsight, past American (and Western) disregard for territorial integrity and international law looks short-sighted. With growing geopolitical tensions, such consensual rules are needed more than ever to temper power struggles. The conflict over Kosovo was never about one small Serbian province—it was about the challenge it represented to a post-World War II peace founded on territorial integrity. In trampling the principle, the West lost its moral authority.

Western appeals to principles of territorial integrity now hold diminished sway outside of its own backyard. When Russia officially annexed Crimea, a United Nations General Assembly resolution was tabled that affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and rejected the validity of the referendum Putin claimed he was only honoring. The results? 100 votes for, 11 votes against, 58 abstentions, and 24 absent.

Whilst it may have passed, many UN member-states clearly felt they had little to gain in upholding a system of mutual protection if others did not play by the rules. A similar vote was brought in October 2022 demanding Moscow reverse course of its “attempted illegal annexation” of the four Ukrainian provinces. Though there was improvement on the Crimea resolution, more than one-fifth of countries still voted against it or abstained—even after extensive Western lobbying. It is hardly the diplomatic victory that was proclaimed: compare it to a UN General Assembly resolution that passed in 1974 affirming the territorial integrity of Cyprus following the invasion of the North by Turkey: 117 votes for, 0 votes against, 0 abstentions.

The Kosovo precedent and the subsequent ICJ ruling not only has implications for the international community; it has also given license to any group that wants to secede. With global instability on the rise, this will become increasingly dangerous.

The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion, and Western sanctions have profoundly shaken the global economy. Coupled with the growing devastation of climate change, the world faces a prolonged crisis. Against such headwinds, the center will struggle to hold. Marginal or disenfranchised groups are more likely to grow disaffected and agitate against their authorities. Secession attempts will become more common. States will likely turn more inwards at the precise moment when we need global cooperation.