Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed through the annexation of invaded territories in Ukraine. These territories are not fully conquered. Indeed, a short time after Putin’s announcement, the Ukrainians recaptured Lyman, a city Russia claims it annexed.
Most countries will not recognize Russia’s moves. Even China, Russia’s shadow ally in the war, will likely avoid directly supporting the annexations. Indeed, Putin’s priority may not even be the land he has grabbed, but rather its utility in providing a pretext to further escalate a war that now threatens his regime — and even his personal survival.
The Sovereignty Principle
Russia’s friends hesitate to back Putin’s territorial claims because of the terrible precedent the annexation sets. If one state can redraw its borders by force, there is little to stop others from considering the same. Most leaders are cautious and oriented toward the status quo. The list of revolutionary imperialists willing to claim neighboring territory by force at any given time tends to be short — Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin are examples. Conflict is inherently risky and destructive, and few states or leaders want a global norm that allows for war as a common tool to set national grievances right. States generally agree to respect each other’s sovereignty, if only for the reciprocal benefits: By guaranteeing your safety through non-aggression, I guarantee my own as well.
Putin’s move is further unnerving because Russia is a large, powerful state — or so we thought until February. Putin’s logic, therefore, is the rule of the strong: World politics is a jungle, and the strong can force their will on the weak. That sort of unconstrained anarchy, where large states bully and dominate small ones, benefits only the great powers. If only because they fear the precedent Putin is setting for their own safety, most small states in the world will reject Putin’s logic and will reject his annexations. Putin will be isolated.
In short, few countries will be comfortable with these annexations. Small countries will oppose the move because they benefit from the basic reciprocal respect of sovereignty that has characterized international politics since World War II. Countries with territorial disputes will fear the idea that force could legitimately solve those disputes. And liberal states that have long ceased to use force against each other will reject the rollback of the non-aggression principle.
Few Examples of Annexation
It is hard to find modern examples of annexation. So uncomfortable does it make most of the world – both dictatorships and democracies, big and small states – that even countries involved in longstanding territorial disputes are loath to openly use force to solve them.
The most obvious example is China. The parallels between China’s claims on Taiwan and Russia’s claims on Ukraine are well established by now. Russia is a large autocracy near a small democracy against which it makes capacious territorial claims. So is China.
Sensing the global anxiety about the norm against conquest, Putin initially tried to pretend that Ukraine did not exist as a separate country. So the invasion was a “special military operation,” not a war. Only after Ukraine fought off a quick conquest did Putin resort to talk of annexation.
This is a clear breakpoint with China. Beijing has long framed its claims on Taiwan within the language of the sovereignty norm. Taiwan is a rogue province, Beijing claims — it is an integral part of China, and its leaders are “splittists.” So long as Putin could package his claims on Ukraine in similarly deceptive but norm-abiding language, China could support the Kremlin’s war. But Ukraine’s intense resistance and the ensuing protracted war have ended the fiction that Russia abides by norms of sovereignty. So Putin dropped the pretense and openly annexed new areas. China will never talk this way, and this move will almost certainly widen the gap between Beijing and Moscow over the war.
Democracies too have acted cautiously in this area since World War II. U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq never had declared territorial claims, and U.S. intent was always to leave proxies in charge and withdraw early. Israel has picked up substantial territorial gains in its various conflicts over the years, and its annexations (of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem) have been deeply contentious and are generally unrecognized.
In short, Putin is mostly alone in this venture. The only states likely to recognize these annexations are rogue regimes such as North Korea. The democracies will never consent, just as they refused to recognize Putin’s snatching of Crimea in 2014. Even China will be wary of openly violating a core norm that it uses to justify its claim to Taiwan. Putin himself likely knows this. His claims are designed to stir up support for the war at home by portraying the fighting in Ukraine as an attack on Russia itself.
Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.
October 4, 2022 at 12:08 pm
Other things to consider: many have this theory that a state invaded by a nuclear neighbor should surrender because of the risk the invader will violate the nuclear taboo if it loses, the logical corollary is that *every state* has to rush to acquire nukes. Better to make a stand now in Ukraine against Russian Nuclear blackmail.
On the way Israel has been mentioned in this article. In reality, Israel is far more analogous to Ukraine in this situation. Israel has been defending itself against genocidal enemies since before day 1 of becoming a state. On day 2 of Israel’s rebirth, 7 national armies of Arab countries invaded with the public declaration that genocide of Jews in Israel was their goal. Just as Russia speaks of destroying Ukrainian identity, so did the Arab states speak of destroying Israel. Many Palestinians continue to speak exactly the same.
On the Golan Heights, Syrian troops would use the high ground to fire on farmers down below. Israel had enough, and sent troops uphill at great cost to take the Golan in ’67. Israel tried to make peace with Syria since then and considered giving back the Golan. That will likely never happen again post Syrian civil war and Bashar’s ties to Hezbollah and Iran. And I havent even gotten into Israel’s historical connection to the Golan.
Speaking of which, Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel. It doesnt matter if others dont recognize that annexation.
Anyone who has spent a tenth of the time there I have knows that the term ‘East Jerusalem’ is a phony construct by unserious people. There are some majority Arab sections of town that require more attention from the state and city officials. That does not mean the city can or should ever be divided again.
That said, in a final peace deal there can and should be room for the Palestinians to have a presence there and plans already exist to both expand the city for Arabs and Jews AND have tunnels+bypass roads to make sure the Arabs of the city have access to a future Palestinian state and vice-versa.
As well, while I disagree with the idea of Israel annexing JUDEA and Samaria [terms of the Abraham Accords eliminated annexation], the flip side of that is that an objective person does not have to agree with every place every Jew tries to live to know how absurdly Anti-Jew racist it is for Palestinians to claim Jews have no right to live in JUDEA at all.
Bottom line: when Israel has a partner for peace, there will be peace. Hopefully the brave Iranian women dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in their country, and cut off the flow of funds to their proxies in Hamas, Hezb, and PIJ. IF that happens, peace will be a lot closer, and further talk of annexation will be largely moot.
October 4, 2022 at 12:39 pm
The annexation project is something that materialized out of a series of failures into a plan C, and it reeks of desperation. All Putin tried to achieve by doing that is to make everyone worry that he might use nukes as, overnight and with a wave of a magic wand, Lyman is in Russia. Well, turns out it’s not, the impromptu move did not pan out the way he’d hoped, and I am pretty sure that at this point Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is hearing a fat lady getting ever louder with her song.
October 4, 2022 at 1:54 pm
Gary, there is a measure of hypocrisy in calling for fairness in Ukraine while advancing injustice in the Middle East. Jerusalem should be shared and a viable Palestine next to Israel is the optimal solution. That is what is fair, and that is what should be pushed.
By the way, it’s really not cool of you to hijack the Ukrainians’ plight in this manner.
October 4, 2022 at 4:08 pm
The president of the red giant is never alone. There are more and more countries at his doorstep that want to be his friend, but he chooses carefully.
However, it is a different tact on the opposite side who have chosen to have only good friends then you don’t need enemies.
October 4, 2022 at 4:14 pm
All of this humiliation on the battle field and more when Vlad has to stand on a milk crate to see over the podium. The midget circus continues.
October 4, 2022 at 4:17 pm
He doesn’t stand very tall either.
History wont have Putin as a great commander.
October 4, 2022 at 7:18 pm
Meh, I was not at all ‘hijacking’ Ukraine. Israel was mentioned in this article… and there is unfortunately a pervasive false equation going around where people are trying to equate Israel with Russia, and the Palestinians with Ukraine. Nothing could be further from the truth. And that situation should be nipped in the bud at every opportunity, so I took this opportunity.
As well, What I stated IS a fair solution. I am not at all against a Palestinian State per se. That said, Israel is a tiny place. At its slimmest point it would be 9 Miles wide along the green line from the beach to the east of Tel Aviv. That is Israel’s main population center. And to the east is high ground. That is not a defensible border when the other side launches rockets at civilians for no reason other than to kill Jews…and Especially considering how common it has been for Israel’s enemies to speak of ‘throwing the Jews into the sea’ [That’s genocide talk by BTW].
As well, to the east of Jerusalem is a town called Ma’ale Adumim. Which is both a town and a defensive layer for Jerusalem against any potential future invasion from the east. It is really a part of Jerusalem but somehow it became a phony controversy when Israel made clear it intends to build in what is called E1 between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. People falsely claim that this will cut off Jerusalem and make a Palestinians state not viable…see my tunnel and bypass road explanation above. AND to the east of Ma’ale Adumim is just a little more than 9 miles to the Jordanian border.
If you want hypocrisy, there you have it. People pretending that it’s OK for Israel to be 9 Miles wide with the ocean on one side… but somehow its not OK for the Palestinians to have 9+ Miles to the Jordanian border when to the other side of that border is another 1000 ish miles of more Arab land, with hundreds of millions more Arabs there.
I am all for peace, and I believe that the Abraham Accords offer an opportunity for other Arab States to help shephard the Palestinians into a more peaceful disposition towards Jews. The ‘outside in approach’.
As well, IF Iran would stop funding and arming Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists…and stop supplying drones to Russia…Israel and Ukraine would both be at peace much faster.
Have a nice day.
Dr. Scooter Van Neuter
October 4, 2022 at 7:48 pm
Putin has proven himself to be either a deluded fool or a victim of horrible advice – either way, he has lost face in the world and even increasingly in his own country (thank God for the internet).
I still contend he’s not going down without a fight and will fire at least one tactical nuke in a final desperate move to freeze NATO (note upcoming ‘exercise’ on the border). What happens after that is the terrifying part, especially with the demented clown show at the helm of our country.
October 4, 2022 at 9:24 pm
More than this, Putin has pinned his annexations on referendums held in the annexed regions. I don’t think China is too keen on the idea that a regional referendum should underpin a change of sovereignty. Some pretty big bits of “China” would be entitled to leave on that basis.
October 4, 2022 at 10:29 pm
“Better to make a stand now in Ukraine against Russian Nuclear blackmail.” Is this meant facetiously? No, it follows that it is not in our interest to get into a conflict with a nuclear superpower over a non-existential interest and a non-ally like Ukraine, particularly when the matter is to Russia an existential interest defining their very capacity to remain a power and nation. Why on God’s earth would this be a place to choose as a hill to die on? Ukraine doesn’t matter to our national interests virtually at all, yet to Russia it is key.
Neutered: your rabid pro-Biden positions for months belie your late criticism here. Biden’s greatest failure is in immersing the United States into a war with Russia (one which I’d add is undeclared and thus is unconstitutional). It has been entirely foreseeable for over the past six (6) months, not to mention the last 20 years, that Russia views an expanding, bellicose alliance like NATO swallowing Ukraine to be a hard red line for them (they believe this after watching America’s regime change/or referendum/annexation (in the case of a Kosovo) invasions of Iraq, Libya, and Yugoslavia. They are aware that the United States and NATO is expansionary, and is perfectly willing to use force to effect “regime change” at their complete discretion without respect for any country’s sovereignty. This compels the conclusion that Putin, will escalate all the way if necessary, and won’t merely demonstrate.
This also is why Russia’s elites would would form any alternative regime not staffed with Putinistas would almost certainly be more bellicose on the issue of Ukraine than the present government of Russia. If there is a lesson of the past 20 odd years, it is of the limits of American power and capacity, and of the need to conserve and build our own abilities to protect and project strength. Yet here you would see us roll the dice on something not even remotely in our national interest, much less existential interest. Ukraine is not an ally of the United States, nor is it in our American interest to go to war with Russia—which is what will occur if at some point the United States gov’t refuses to admit to its own people the truth here—that Russia is committed, and will remain committed.
In the best case scenario, the only tangible effect which will come from this will be the empowerment of an anti-American intervention grand alliance spanning the world. In the next least bad consequence, one in which the U.S. seeks “regime change” and installation of a pro-American puppet gov’t in Moscow, the entire developing world and global south will enter an anti-American military pact. None of them wish to be the newest iteration of the apparently insatiable appetite of chickenhawks here to impose yet another American sociological experiment to remake human nature through force abroad. This is a foolhardy policy, one premised on a utopian understanding of core human nature… yet even after the failed interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya etc, here you are shilling for more of the same! This conflict (the better Ukraine does conventionally) is moving towards nuclear Armageddon, and you apparently still think the Russians don’t really believe Ukraine is an existential interest to them… tell me, will you recognize this when the first nuke is dropped, or will it take 2-4?
October 5, 2022 at 10:57 am
LoL, once again…Ukraine is literally the only issue that I agree with Biden on in any way shape or form. And even with this he only gets a B at best. The US should not cow to Putin’s BS blackmail and should be providing ATACMs in the short term [which would end the war sooner], and among other things we should be making provisions to refurbish F16s out of the massive boneyard we have in the desert for future training of Ukraine’s airforce after the war is over.
On Russia, no… We do not need them. And we would need them less if Biden hadnt cancelled Keystone XL or played games with the oil&gas leases on federal lands. As well, his fumbling of relations with Saudi has made things worse on the oil markets…and just today OPEC+ announced a cut of 2Million barrels – although oil is still down on the market for the day.
Khashoggi was no saint. In fact he would post on his own Twitter page some of the most insane anti-Jew conspiracy theories that the original Russian authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion would blush at. And that’s not even mentioning his past relations with Bin Laden or his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. An objective person does not have to agree with the way he was killed to know that his case should not have had this effect on US policy. Biden gets an F- on this, and a F on handling the macro economy.
Furthermore, breaking down the BS nature of Putin’s nuke blackmail is quite important. Having been sanctioned and isolated by the West, Russia has turned to Brazil, India, China and South Africa – the other parts of BRICS. Since the use of nuclear arms will have a tremendous impact on global security and stability, it is hard to believe that Russia would proceed without consultation with China as a minimum. It is even harder to imagine China sanctioning even a tactical nuclear strike. Russia has lost the West and cannot run the risk of losing BRICS as well.
For the most part…Nations do not wage war for war’s sake but in pursuance of policy in which a better state of peace is the main objective. For the countries where this is actually the case, it is essential to conduct war with constant regard to the type of peace desired. A nuclear attack is in direct conflict with its long-term strategy. Facing huge demographic challenges, Russia needs Ukraine and Belarus to become a “Great Power”. It needs Ukraine’s defence industry. It needs a self-sustained Ukraine. It needs a well-functioning agricultural industry. It needs access to its huge mineral resources. It needs to secure a well-functioning country. The use of nuclear arms becomes counterproductive in this case.
Equally important, you pretend that we need Russia when in fact it is quite the opposite. Russia needs Western trade. A conventional victory in Ukraine would over time possibly be accepted as a “fait accompli” by the West. A nuclear attack would render this option impossible for decades to come.
Even if Russia chose to ignore all of the above, the use of tactical nuclear weapons defies its purpose unless it can explore the “military advantage” created by its blast. Russia lacks the capability to operate in the area devastated by its blast and push fresh forces through the gap in the frontline.
As my Ukrainian friends would say: The Russians are highly immoral, but they are not stupid.
That said, the risk is of course not zero. If it was, nuclear deterrence would not work.
While history if full of close calls, nuclear arms haven’t been used since WW2 for one simple reason: The consequences are too horrific to seriously contemplate their use. That reality has not changed despite the Russian nuclear blackmail.
And this is the most important point: it is not even blackmailing until we allow ourselves to be coerced into inaction and defeat.
If we fail to address the Russian nuclear “fait accompli” strategy [nuclear blackmail] however… the risk of further escalation and future wars is high.
NATO and the rest of the ‘collective west’ basically did nothing after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. Not to mention poisoning Ukrainian presidential candidates and other Russian dissidents and journalists around the world.
As 15+ years of compliance has demonstrated, unwillingness to counter the threats will only embolden Russia. A bit of short term pain for the long term gain of a greatly diminished Russia is worth it.
October 5, 2022 at 1:24 pm
Even though I am deliberately writing past you targeting the readership, I am tempted to try to reason with you.
First, I’d recommend you read Luttwak’s “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire”, and Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit”. The former discusses the limits of hard and soft power even for the most powerful western state of late antiquity/medieval period. It describes how the Byzantines preserved their state for a thousand years after the fall of Rome by comprehending the limits of power and the impact of hubris. It reveals how they shed utopian hubris (in policy if not in personal view) regarding the relative barbarity of the innumerable foes all around them, and how they maintained their power and freedom as a state for so long. It’s worth a gander, you might learn something. The latter discusses the reason why both imperial interventions abroad to remake the world in one’s own image, and domestic governmental interventions into the economy fail and result in dislocation, loss; and a degradation of the society it purportedly is enacted to benefit. Combined, they both show why Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual’s “strategy” was and is doomed to failure. If you have time beyond that, consult Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War for an introduction to how states exist in a state of nature with one another and how realpolitik prevails ultimately over emotion, even broad based democratic societies’ emotional convictions on “justice/injustice”.
Let me pose a few questions here, and I’d urge you to think a few steps down the road about where a particular answer will lead.
-Why do you believe Putin is “bs[ing]” here?
-What are the consequences if he is not bsing?
-If Putin is not bluffing regarding Ukraine and Russia views, regardless of the merit of that conviction, Ukraine’s entrance into NATO as a non-negotiable redline, what are the consequences and effects of American intervention escalating?
-Are you prepared to go to nuclear war over Ukraine?
-If so, why is nuclear war over Ukraine in the United States’ national interest?
-If Putin is not bluffing, what will the likely consequence of Ukraine prevailing conventionally using American arms, training, intelligence, and guidance/direction? Meaning, what will Russia’s reaction be?
-How do you reach the conclusion that the United States should treat Ukraine, a non-ally, as an ally, guaranteeing them up to and through nuclear war?
-For six months, I have warned of the negative economic consequences to the United States of this intervention (and today even you of all people note Russia and OPEC slashing production to drive up our prices and place tremendous pain on the west), and you here note that “we don’t need them”, well, why would we lose a chance to pry Russia from
China’s orbit and instead willfully push them into a full fledged openly anti-American alliance with China and India (and co) representing over half the world’s population? How do we gain from this?
-Does not your logic, extended from Ukraine ton Khashoggi and Saudi’s various dalliances/invasion of Yemen, dictate that we also refuse to do business with Saudi? After all, do you not deny the efficacy of realpolitik there as you do with regards to Ukraine?
-If Russia does in fact view Ukraine in NATO as an existential threat, why does it follow that they will allow themselves to be constrained by Chinese or Indian concerns on the matter?
-You write that “[n]ations do not wage war for war’s sake but in pursuance of policy in which a better state of peace is the main objective.” Why do you not believe this is the objective of Russia here?
-Is it not likely that Russia’s optimal result would indeed be to absorb Ukraine’s defense industry and a well-functioning agricultural industry, but that this goal is secondary to the primary goal of preventing Ukraine from being absorbed into an anti-Russian alliance? Does it not follow then that escalation to prevent total defeat/salvage the primary objective is more likely than walking away, particularly when the executive authority is concentrated in one man with little accountability?
-does not the last six (6) months of Russian survival in the face of unprecedented western sanctions prove the opposite, that Russia does not need western trade, as they hold the product, and we the dollars?
-Why do you believe an unconditional surrender compelled by nuclear weapons would not be recognized by the global south/BRICs/OPEC? Our use of nuclear weapons to avoid several million casualties at the end of WWII was recognized, was it not?
-Does Russia lack the capability to operate in Ukraine if it for instance uses a nuke as an EMP over 2/3rds of the country, or uses such a weapon on any number of logistical hubs throughout Ukraine?
-What deterrence will prevent a country from
Using nuclear weapons when faced with an existential threat? When the alternative is indefensibility, is not the use rendered more and not less likely, particularly when used against a non-nuclear power? What is the deterrence here? The U.S. would have to declare war on Russia to lawfully respond militarily in such a scenario, would it not?
-Did not Kennedy threaten nuclear war when Russia acted on its defensive pact with Cuba and moved missiles into “our” hemisphere? Was that a bs bluff also, or do countries have existential interests profound enough to overpower the reluctance to utilize such weapons?
-How would the United States or NATO, “non-participants” in the Ukraine war, be “defeated” when we are not combatants and are inactive?
-Did not Russia invade Georgia in response to American announcements to admit Georgia to NATO in the face of Russia saying: “hey, no, Ukraine and Georgia are our Cuba, and you can’t be that close to us with NATO”?
-Is not Russian intervention to secure vital resources and military installations in Crimea in 2014 a reaction to American fostering of a coup overthrowing a democratically elected government in Ukraine?
-Is not China, and not Russia, our primary adversary? Does not the addition of Russia to China weaken our strategic position relative to how it existed previous to the war?
-If Russia will go to whatever ends are needed to prevent Ukrainian entry into NATO, is it not a fool’s errand harmful to American strategic interests to push Russia and the developing world into the Chinese communist’s arms?
-Does not your bellicosity and desire to “reduce”
Russia into a “greatly diminished Russia” signal to all other non western countries the need to restrain American power and band together to oppose it?
-Does not American violation of 20+ years of Russian red lines signal to Russia and other non-western states that the United States is an aggressively expansionist power which necessitates collective anti-American action (like OPEC+’s today)?
October 6, 2022 at 1:41 am
The author seems to have consigned the very successful Chinese annexation of Tibet to the dustbins of history. Tibet was invaded, drawn and quartered. Cooked in a wok and consumed in full. Despite the efforts of the Dalai Llama and misguided youth, the country is, for all intents and purposes, an integral part of China.
October 6, 2022 at 1:30 pm
No, no he doesn’t you Globalist hacks.
OIF Combat Vet
October 6, 2022 at 2:57 pm
Ukraine is still a massive money pit…if we had billions of dollars to blow on a losing proposition, then we should have stayed in Afghanistan instead of gifting it back to the Taliban with billions in reparations. Zelenski is a tyrant, and just because he is our tyrant doesn’t make him any less a tyrant.
October 6, 2022 at 7:15 pm
The fact that the Russian army sucks shouldn’t give Putin an excuse to use a nuclear weapon. If he uses even one tactical nuke, he should be personally taken out by whatever means we have.