Putin Now Gets to Rewrite Rules Meant to Prevent World War III

Sergei Ilnitsky/AP

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The United Nations charter says clearly no country can annex another forcible. Now that Putin has, he gets to write some rules of his own. By Steve LeVine

Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed the bitterness of the ages when he addressed his compatriots this week. For three centuries, the West had conspired to bottle up Russia within its borders—since the time of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the establishment of the country’s sweeping empire. But no longer. The world would have to accept a confident new Russia that no longer tolerated such affrontery. Unspoken but communicated plainly were the words “or else.”

But Putin’s March 18 address to parliament was notable for other reasons, and that was in declaring a clear conclusion to two overlapping eras. One is the “post-Soviet period,” the quarter-century-long age defined by the 1991 collapse of the USSR and the triumph of the West and its ways. Russia is no longer supine and prepared to accept the faits accompli as presented by Washington and its allies, he said.

The second, though, is far more consequential: the post-World War II Pax Americana, the UN-led security architecture under which countries pledge not to forcibly annex one another (article 2, paragraph 4). Putin has not suggested that the UN charter be rescinded, but his absorption of Crimea—not to mention the 2008 effective annexation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—amount to the same thing. The only other significant forceful annexation since 1945 that has not been rolled back was Israel’s occupation of territories in 1967, writes the historian Juan Cole. (Others that were rolled back include Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor in 1975 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.) Certainly, no other major world power has broken the pledge.

The Pax Rossiyana

Putin did not spell out the new rules of this still largely vague new period, but he did make one matter unmistakable: some of the rules will be set by Russia.

“There is a limit to everything,” Putin said. He added, “Today, it is imperative to … accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs; like other countries, it has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.” This state of affairs infuriates NATO. In a speech yesterday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the western military alliance’s secretary general, said “we live in a different world than we did less than a month ago.” He said the Russian adventure involved:

“attempts … to re-write or simply rip up the international rule book. And to use force to solve problems rather than the international mechanisms that we have spent decades to build. We had thought that such behavior had been confined to history. But it is back. And it is dangerous.”

At the moment, Putin remains on the offensive and appears to be the winner from the crisis. The West has so far imposed only a light slap of sanctions against individual Russians. Today the US opened the door to the possibility of broader sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy, and tonight European officials will discuss a UK proposal to escalate efforts to become less reliant on Russian natural gas. But if Putin’s territorial ambitions stop at Crimea, there may be no further action.

Where else Russia might expand

Putin has left the question of further territorial interest ambiguous. He said he respects Ukraine’s integrity, but at the same time suggested its borders are not hard and fast. This is the “or else” part of his message. In line with that dimension, a Russian diplomat at the UN suggested March 19 that Moscow continues to be unhappy with the treatment of ethnic Russians in Ukraine—and also Estonia. There are also concerns about Russian intentions in Transnistria, a disputed majority ethnic-Russian area of Moldova.

(Related: Putin Now Gets to Rewrite Rules Meant to Prevent World War III)

One can see some of the outlines of the new homeland in Putin’s mind. With the establishment of a federated Ukraine—one of Moscow’s demands—he could go on to dominate eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial bedrock. Since he already has drawn Belarus and Kazakhstan into his Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led economic alliance scheduled to launch next year, absorbing more of Ukraine would give him stewardship over the muscle of the Soviet Union’s industrial and resource base while ignoring its less-productive fat.

As discussed in another post, this is a new Putin, a messianic Russian leader telling his countrymen he will lead them to the promised land. His strategy has been an appeal to deep-seated Russian insecurities and a righteous, us-against-them instinct. “We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today,” Putin said March 18. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy.”

One result is that Putin has domestic latitude (paywall) to do as he wishes—an ultra-nationalistic, anti-western hysteria that appears likely to support almost any foreign adventure. The lone member of Russia’s 450-seat Duma to vote against the Crimean annexation, an opposition politician called Ilya Ponomarev, said that he did so only because he thought it was too hastily done (link in Russian).

The world is conflicted. Markets have said ho-hum—stock markets have rallied since Putin’s address—while political and military leaders have been in a panic. But those who deal in global security—NATO in particular—are worried that the underpinnings of the six-decade “long peace” since World War II are at risk.

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