Russia, as we’ve all noticed, has developed a habit recently of nibbling off small chunks of neighbouring countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Crimea is different from the earlier nibbles in that Russia is claiming formal sovereignty over it, rather than supporting ostensibly independent puppet states. But the habit can be traced back two decades, to Russian military support for Transnistria.
Russia generally justifies its actions with claims of democratic legitimacy, that because the locals want to be close to or part of Russia rather than part of Ukraine/Georgia/Moldova, and because after all modern sovereignty is based in the popular will, the territorial adjustments should be seen as normatively acceptable by the community of sovereigns. On the one hand, this is a reasonable claim, albeit one the application of which depends on who counts as ‘the people.’ On the other hand, use of this claim in the past has led to conflictual outcomes, most clearly in German expansion leading to the second world war (I figured I might as well get Godwin’s Law out of the way as early as possible).
During the Cold War, territorial expansion in the name of the popular will did not happen. Wars for control within existing boundaries were frequent, and very occasionally existing states fell apart into constituent parts (e.g. Pakistan). But states did not take over recognized parts of other states. Border changes became much more frequent following the end of the Cold War, and nationalist attempts at secession much more successful. But even then we’re talking about states breaking up along recognized internal borders, rather than some states annexing parts of others drawing on claims of popular sovereignty (Iraq in Kuwait, given the international response, is the exception that proves the rule).
So Russia’s territorial nibbles don’t fit into existing norms of sovereignty. But norms reflect practice, and can change over time. And a question not asked often enough with respect to Russian revanchism is whether it will set a meaningful precedent that will push norms of sovereignty to be more accepting of territorial adjustment. If it does affect norms, how will this affect the practice of international politics? Will it remain something that only nuclear/veto powers can get away with, or will it encourage territorial revisionism among lesser powers as well? Imagine territorial revisionism drawing on ideas of popular sovereignty catching on in Africa. It could get messy…
This is not to argue that Cold War norms of sovereignty were nifty and we should keep them. After all, civil wars over control of reified borders get messy too. But it is to argue that policy responses to Russian revanchism aren’t just about Russia and its neighbours. Policy responses by the international community, and particularly those parts of the international community most vested in norms of multilateral cooperation, should take into account questions of precedent and norm evolution as well. The response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait made a broader point about the legitimacy of territorial acquisition by force in the post-Cold War world (although restoring an absolute hereditary monarchy also made a point about the limits of norms of popular sovereignty). The international community seems, sotto voce, to be changing its mind on that point.