Staunton, April 21 – In 2014, Vladimir Putin dealt a death blow to the existing international order by violating the internationally accepted ban on the annexation of territory by force alone and set in train events that have led to his invasion of Ukraine and, if he is not stopped there, to a third world war, Aleksandr Skobov says.
That is because a state which annexes the territory of other states by force can only hold them and remain part of the international community if it wins a major war, the Moscow analyst says. That is the lesson Putin has taken from non-recognition policy, a different one than others do and one that points in a dangerous direction (graniru.org/opinion/skobov/m.285025.html).
There is a widespread sense that Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine beginning on February 24 destroyed the international system but there is much less appreciation, Skobov says, of how that grew out of the attitudes of the Russian ruling class that emerged after 1991 and even more out of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The essence of civilization and modernization is not about technological progress and increased consumption,” he continues. “It is about restricting cruelty in human beings, in limiting the ability of one to get his way by using force against another.” That is at the core of what human rights are about.
Unfortunately, “in post-Soviet Russia, a new ruling class was formed rapidly which was focused on taking and holding power and wealth by extra-legal means.” Arising out of the special services and the criminal world, it was committed to throwing off all the restrictions that civilization requires.
That ruling class, Skobov says, “raised the banner of struggle for freedom from civilization, for freedom to use force, and freedom to suppress others. It challenged the world order which required the observation of legal norms as a condition for being admitted to ‘polite society.’”
This new ruling class first “refused to observe human rights and other legal niceties that were foreign to our national traditions,” Skobov argues. “And it discovered that the civilized community viewed this as small beer, as excesses of the transition, and only scolded a little or perhaps expressed some concern but not very deep at that.”
That lack of serious concern emboldened the new ruling class and its leader, Vladimir Putin; and in 2014, he and his minions “dealt a death blow to the international order” by his Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea. Wars for territory have always been a nightmare, and in the 20th century, they led first to two world wars and then to an international ban of such things.
That ban, declared in the United Nations, was observed throughout the cold war; and most people expected it to be observed after 1991. Putin and his regime, however, decided that they could without penalty return to the pre-1945 world and annex whatever they had the military power to do.
And after Crimea, they felt that the world had swallowed this violation. “Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea was not viewed by the world as a catastrophe.” Instead, all too many in Russia and the West decided that “nothing fatal had happened and that relations between Moscow and the world could continue “as usual.”
It is important to remember, Skobov says, that “in fact, the post-war borders of the USSR were recognized by Western countries both de facto and de jure. They were recognized as the results of a world war in which the USSR was among the victors,” and Western non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries is not an exception, at least in Russian eyes.
The Baltic example, the Russian analyst says, “shows only that a state which wants to legitimize an annexation it has committed must at a minimum win a world war so that as a victor it can dictate to the world new “inviolable’ borders.” That is what the Soviets did and what Putin is on his way to trying to repeat.
What this means, Skobov says, is that “a state in the contemporary world which has annexed the territory of another and categorically refuses to return that land is condemned to unleashing a world war” because “only via a world war which it will win can it keep what it has seized and force the rest of the world to accept that seizure.”
By his Anschluss of Crimea, Putin has fallen into a trap of his own making: he can’t possibly keep that Ukrainian land and be accepted by polite society internationally unless and until he launches a world war he thinks he can win and thus can force the world to accept his seizures as legitimate.