Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just another land grab. It’s an attempt to recolonize lost empire, and threatens to return us to the age of conquest.
Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine is now in its second year, and prospects for peace seem as distant as ever. Of course, this war has been going on for much longer—since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and pushed into the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But the wholesale invasion that Vladimir Putin launched in February 2022 was on a completely new level, and in terms of the scale and intensity of the fighting is the biggest and bloodiest war in Europe since World War II.
The prospect of continued death and destruction, and the relatively static nature of the front line since late 2022, has led to renewed calls for a settlement that would require Ukrainian territorial concessions. Michael Desch, an international-relations scholar, recently wrote, for example, that “Ukraine and the West need to make their peace with the idea that Crimea, the Donbas, and the southern land bridge between them are most likely gone for good.”
Such calls for Ukraine to cede territory in exchange for peace follow the maxim of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Given the size of Russia’s population and economy, not to mention its nuclear arsenal, the reasoning goes, Ukraine has no choice but to yield territory. It may be unfair, according to these international relations “realists,” but that’s just how the world works.
Yet this is not how the world today works. Russia’s aggression—a naked attempt to recolonize Ukraine—is a violation of the norm of territorial integrity and a throwback to the age of imperialism. It’s a jarring anomaly, and possibly unique, in the post–World War II era. Putin announced in September 2022 that Russia had annexed four more Ukrainian provinces—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. As NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg pointed out at the time, this was “the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War.”
Stoltenberg is right. The Ukrainian territory that Russia has forcibly seized and declared Russian territory since 2014, including Crimea, encompasses more than 135,000 square kilometers—that is larger than Austria and Switzerland combined. And even when Turkey seized Northern Cyprus (3,300 square kilometers) in 1974, the last significant capture of territory in Europe, it did not claim that the seized land was part of Turkey.
Such a massive land grab is also relatively rare outside Europe. To be sure, states have sought to capture territory from their neighbors. But there have been two notable trends in such seizures since World War II: First, the aggressor states often make their land grabs seem like “faits accomplis” by occupying small parts of a neighboring state and gambling that they will be able to claim the territory without actually having to fight for it. A key factor here is size; the targeted territories tend to be small and generally unoccupied and unprotected by the state to which they belong.
Second, most efforts to seize large blocks of territory have their origins in decolonization struggles with competing territorial claims. For example, the post–World War II partitions of both Korea and Vietnam (which had been colonies of Japan and France, respectively) into northern and southern parts were disputed and a key cause of war in both countries. Morocco seized Western Sahara in 1975 when Spain withdrew, but had claimed the territory since gaining its own independence from colonial rule in 1956. In a similar process, Indonesia seized East Timor in 1975 during a civil war that followed Portugal’s withdrawal from its former colony. The struggle over Cyprus, a divided society that won independence from Britain in 1960, also has its roots in decolonization.
Importantly, international recognition of these disputed territories was either contested or withheld. The United Nations did not recognize Vietnam until 1977 or North and South Korea until 1991. Western Sahara has never been a UN-recognized independent state, nor is Morocco’s claim to it recognized by the UN today. Tibet, the other massive territorial seizure (more than a million square kilometers since World War II), was de facto independent from China between 1912 and 1951, but was not recognized as an independent state by other countries. Kuwait, in contrast, was a member of the United Nations when Iraq invaded in 1990, but the UN Security Council quickly denounced that annexation, which was ultimately reversed during the Gulf War (1990–91).
The story of the Russia-Ukraine War is different. It is, in essence, a war of recolonization by the former imperial power. Further, and a critical and consequential feature of this case, Ukraine is a full-fledged member of the UN whose 1991 borders were explicitly affirmed by Russia on no fewer than four occasions before 2014: the Alma Ata Declaration (1991), the Budapest Memorandum (1994), the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine (1997), and the Treaty Between Russia and Ukraine on the State Border (2003). This last treaty was signed personally by Vladimir Putin. As recently as 2008, Putin said, “Russia has long recognized the borders of modern-day Ukraine,” and “Crimea is not a disputed territory.”
This Russian invasion, then, is distinctly different from other post–World War II land grabs. A reasonable analogy would be if, several decades after Irish Independence (1922) or Algerian Independence (1962), the United Kingdom or France declared that it no longer recognized the agreed-upon borders and then tried to recolonize those countries and seize big chunks of their territory.
Of course, the end of empires is often messy. Imperial collapse can lead to violent conflicts, such as the fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh after the Soviet breakup. Recognizing this brutal reality, however, does not mean that we should give a pass to former empires that decide they want to reverse border and territorial agreements which they accepted decades earlier during imperial breakup.
The Wrong Precedent
The international community would set a terrible precedent if it pressured Ukraine to give up multiple provinces—lands on which Russian forces have committed genocidal acts, including taking thousands of Ukrainian children and sending them to Russia. The return to business-as-usual with Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea emboldened rather than deterred Putin’s larger territorial ambitions. Ukraine is right to insist that the norm of territorial integrity be upheld. We should not accept that forcible territorial conquest is legitimate in the twenty-first century. It is, in fact, extremely rare and viewed with opprobrium by most of the world’s states. After Putin declared Russia’s incorporation of the four Ukrainian provinces in September 2022, the UN General Assembly denounced the move by a vote of 143 to 5, with 35 abstentions.
Borders, of course, are made by humans and thus imperfect. But respect for existing borders is central to the UN-led international system of sovereign states. On the eve of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the Kenyan ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, noted that after independence Africans chose to “settle for the borders that we inherited” rather than descend into decades of war, and that they “rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis.”
Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently made a similar point. He stated that Ukraine’s 1991 borders were recognized by Russia at the time and should be recognized by Russia now. “Nearly all the borders in the world are accidental and cause someone’s discontent,” he declared. “But we cannot fight to change them in the twenty-first century. Otherwise, the world will plunge into chaos.”
Kimani and Navalny are right. And the “realists” who want to pressure Ukraine to trade territory for peace are wrong to believe that doing so would work. If Ukraine capitulated, Putin would simply pocket his gains and seek to further subjugate the country in the future. Moreover, by backing such a “resolution” the West would become complicit in undermining the UN system of sovereign states and respect for territorial integrity. Finally, if a powerful state is simply allowed to change its mind about existing borders and treaties, invade and bomb its neighbors, and seize territory by force, what’s to stop others from doing so in the future? Do we really want to turn back the clock to the age of conquest?
Renée de Nevers is associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs and Chair of the Social Science Ph.D. Program at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Brian D. Taylor is professor of political science and director of the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is the author of The Code of Putinism (2018).
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