Describing U.S. goals in the ongoing conflict with Russia over Ukraine in a televised address from the White House on Feb. 15, President Joe Biden cited “the principle that a country can’t change its neighbor’s borders by force.” The principle that Biden was referring to is codified in international law. It prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” as the U.N.’s founding charter puts it.
Many principles of the postwar international order are honored more in the breach than in the observance, but there is something to the idea that in the modern era, countries don’t simply gobble each other up anymore.
“If we go back to the 19th century, and even the early 20th century, it wasn’t that uncommon for entire countries to be swallowed up by their neighbors,” Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told Grid. “After 1945, we did see a major shift in how countries exerted control over their neighbors.”
The redrawing of borders by conquest had come to end — for the most part. This is why recent Russian actions in what it calls its “near abroad” have seemed so anachronistic. When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry put it bluntly: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”
Or do you? Today there is a possibility that Russia may seize considerably more Ukrainian territory, or even forcibly overthrow its government. Either scenario would present the gravest threat yet to 21st-century norms.
But what Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening may be less a reversion to the old style of conquest than the creation of a new one. If it really does come to war in Ukraine, Russia will most likely attempt to conquer its neighbor while paying lip service to international laws that prevent such a conquest. And Putin will almost certainly use Western governments’ own rhetoric to justify it.
The end of conquest?
Conquests of entire countries — or even attempted conquests — have been rare since World War II. In a 2020 paper, “The Evolution of Conquest,” political scientist Daniel Altman found just four examples: North Korea’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer South Korea in 1950; North Vietnam’s successful conquest of South Vietnam in 1975; Indonesia’s annexation of Timor-Leste in 1975; and Iraq’s short-lived annexation of Kuwait in 1990. The last example prompted a U.S.-led international military intervention, which we now know as the first Gulf War, and which is often held up as the textbook example of the international community rallying to prevent the forceful redrawing of an international border. Kuwait was liberated after six weeks of war.
More common have been attempts by countries to take over parts of other countries. Altman’s paper looks at nine such attempts in the period between 1976 and 2006. The best-known examples include the Iran-Iraq war, which began with Iraq’s attempt to annex Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan region in 1980; the Falklands War, in which Argentina moved to seize British-controlled islands off its coast in 1982; and the Kargil War, when Pakistan moved troops into the disputed Kargil region of Kashmir in 1999. All three attempts failed, as did Altman’s other six examples. Conquering new territory — and then holding onto it — isn’t easy in the modern world, which makes what Russia pulled off in Crimea in 2014, almost without firing a shot, all the more remarkable.
The Putin approach
Monica Duffy Toft, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and author of several studies of territorial conflict, told Grid that while there are many “that have accepted that territorial aggrandizement is no longer acceptable,” Russia is not among them. “The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Russian Federation is still trying to figure out exactly where its borders begin and end.”
Putin doesn’t flout the norm against territorial conquest as much as he violates its spirit while maintaining just enough plausible deniability to get away with it. An example: Technically speaking, Russia hasn’t occupied parts of Georgia, the neighbor with which it fought a short war in 2008; it simply recognized the independence of two breakaway regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In geopolitical terms, there’s not much distinction between this and outright annexation. When I crossed the Georgian-Abkhaz border in 2016, officers from the Russian state security services checked my passport.
When it comes to Ukraine, Russia’s government has consistently denied that it sent troops into the country in 2014 — Russian troops may have traveled to eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Kremlin’s account goes, but they were “volunteers” going to help Russian-speaking separatists fighting to win their independence from Kyiv.
Crimea was different: In 2014, Russia formally annexed the peninsula in what was the largest seizure of European territory since World War II. According to Moscow’s narrative, this righted a wrong done when the largely Russian-speaking peninsula was “gifted” by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, the true significance of this “gift” only became apparent when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and new borders were drawn in 1991. It was a moment, in Putin’s words, when “millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics.”
But even in Crimea, the Russian government was careful to maintain the narrative that it was not a conqueror. In the chaotic days following the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in February 2014, armed militants wearing what appeared to be Russian military uniforms seized government buildings in Crimea during pro-Russian demonstrations. These became known in the international media as the “little green men.” But Putin denied that Russia’s military was involved at all. Several weeks later, a hastily organized referendum was held to legitimize the takeover. (The referendum did not include an option to keep the status quo.) The following year, Putin more or less admitted in a Russian television documentary that the whole thing had been planned in Moscow, but by then the deed was done: It was clear that whether or not the West recognized Crimea’s new status, Ukraine wasn’t getting it back any time soon.
Learning from the West
These storylines aren’t exactly convincing to the rest of the world. Today only four countries other than Russia recognize Georgia’s breakaway regions as independent. Only a handful of Russian allies back its claims in Crimea. But in all these cases Putin has managed to solidify a narrative for the Russian public and the country’s allies: Russia doesn’t invade other countries. That’s what the U.S. does.
In Putin’s narrative, as he laid out in a blistering 2015 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the United States’ “aggressive foreign interference” in Iraq, Libya, and Syria has promised “democracy and progress” but delivered only “violence, poverty and social disaster.” “Color Revolutions” that ousted pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine and Georgia were also U.S. regime-change operations, according to the Kremlin’s propaganda. America’s support for the principle of “moterritorial integrity” was shown to be false when it intervened in the Balkans and then supported the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a Russian ally, over Moscow’s objections. It is the height of hypocrisy, in Putin’s telling, for U.S. leaders to criticize Russia’s own interventions much closer to home.
Some U.S. leaders have tried to answer the charge. President Barack Obama, in a 2014 speech in Brussels, argued that while he had strongly and famously opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was a different enterprise than the annexation of Crimea. “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory,” Obama said. “We did not grab its resources for our own gain.”
This is the generally held U.S. position — in this century, anyway: Yes, sometimes we’ll go to war, but we don’t take over the countries where we fight. (Best to leave aside, for the time being, Obama’s successor, who not only agreed with Putin’s position on Crimea but suggested on multiple occasions that the U.S. should “keep the oil” in Iraq and Syria.) America doesn’t go to war for conquest; it does so to prevent conquest in places like South Korea, South Vietnam and Kuwait. Or we go to war in the name of controlling some threat to global security, or to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
But Putin, a self-styled student of Western hypocrisy, can play that game as well. He has said that Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers in the country’s east “looks like genocide.” His foreign minister has accused the Ukrainian government of “state terrorism.” The talk at the negotiating tables in Geneva may be all about NATO enlargement and missile deployments in Eastern Europe, but if Russia does actually move into Ukraine, it may well be precipitated by some event in Ukraine itself: either a real overreaction by Ukraine’s military against the separatists or a fabricated one. The Russian government is also considering recognizing the two breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists — Donetsk and Luhansk — following the playbook from Georgia, perhaps in hopes of goading Ukraine into an overreaction that could provide a pretext for war.
A Russian military operation may be justified as some combination of humanitarian intervention or counterterrorist strike. If it’s true, as some western government assessments warn, that Russia plans to force Ukraine’s government to step down in favor of a more pliant one, it will likely say that it removed a corrupt illegitimate government rife with neo-Nazis in accordance with the true wishes of the Ukrainian people.
And then, when the U.S. accuses Moscow of a violent violation of international law, the response will be: We’re just doing what you’ve done.
The future of territory
One of the oldest axioms of international relations — “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” — still applies. The country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and fifth-largest military — that would be Russia — can get away with things that others can’t. Unlike Korea in 1950 or Iraq in 1990, international troops aren’t going to be sent in to push the Russians back if they invade. But it’s still telling that Russia seems to be trying to thread the needle between its geopolitical ambitions and prevailing international norms.
“What Putin’s Russia has been doing is kind of between the way things used to be before 1945, and how they have come to be since 1945,” Fazal told me. She said that rather than directly challenging the no-conquest norm as Saddam Hussein did, Putin is chipping away at its edges. The Russian leader is no doubt aware that, as Fazal put it, “direct challenges usually generate direct responses.” The damage done by gradual chipping away is more likely to go unaddressed.
In terms of how attitudes toward territory evolve, the other country to watch is China, whose diplomats frequently affirm the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity in international law, while the nation pursues territorial ambitions beyond its mainland. The most prominent case involves Taiwan, where fears of a Chinese invasion have been mounting. But China is also asserting maritime claims against its neighbors in the South China Sea — and building artificial islands to bolster those claims — as well as feuding with India over disputed territories in the Himalayas, a fight that has turned violent on several recent occasions.
Around the world, it’s not hard to find other examples of ongoing disputes that could become border-altering flashpoints, whether it’s Kenya and Somalia squabbling in international courts over their maritime boundary, the Serbian enclave in Bosnia asserting its independence, or Sudan and South Sudan fighting over the disputed Abyei region. More dangerous, perhaps, is that the long-running dispute over Kashmir between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan continues to simmer.
International norms have power only to the degree that states honor them. Russia is currently working to hollow out the norms against conquest and territorial expansion while paying lip service to those same norms. If Putin is successful — and it’s not at all clear that the U.S. or other countries will be able to deter him — other leaders will no doubt take note.