Today Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with the self-styled independent government of Crimea, annexing Crimea to Russia. I did not see this coming. It is an unprecedented deviation from the post-World War 2 international norm that force and the threat of force shall not be used for conquest. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait to Iraq, the UN Security Council swiftly and unanimously approved sanctions, and when Hussein did not withdraw, authorized the use of force to expel his forces. Other de facto annexations have happened — Russia has occupied Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, and Armenia has occupied Nagorno-Karabakh — but in none of these cases has annexation been formalized. There have been other conflicts over disputed territory — China-India, Somalia-Ethiopia, and Britain-Argentina, for instance — but in all these cases there was a legitimate dispute over proper ownership of the territories involved. By contrast, Russia had previously guaranteed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, in exchange for obtaining the latter’s nuclear weapons. Finally, all secessions between 1945 and 2007 were widely recognized only with the consent (however begrudging) of the rump state. Kosovo’s independence was an important — some would say “dangerous” — deviation from this pattern in 2008.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea therefore sets a dangerous new precedent. It threatens to return the world to an environment in which the “strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must,” with adverse repercussions not just for Russia and Ukraine, but for the whole world. Russia under Putin bids fair to become a pariah state.