Is Russia breaking international law?

Russia’s behavior begs the question: are we seeing this norm disappear?

Not necessarily — but maybe.

Countries used to conquer other countries frequently

Conquering land, including entire countries, was once relatively common. As I show in my book, “State Death”, buffer countries – traditionally, countries between two rival countries – were particularly vulnerable to conquest. Often the great powers on either side of the buffer states did not trust each other do not support buffers between them.

Poland, repeatedly cut up by more powerful neighbors, is a good illustration of this dynamic. But buffer states around the world – from Korea (in 1905) to Estonia (in 1940) – died by conquest. Ukraine finds itself in an equally vulnerable position, wedged between NATO member countries and Russia.

However, from the beginning of the 20th century and, certainly, after the Second World War, a norm against such territorial conquest emerged. Promoted in particular by the United States, but with the support of the whole world, this principle is most clearly enshrined in Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations: “All members shall refrain, in their relations international organizations, to resort to the threat or use of force against the political integrity or independence of any State”.

After 1945, the states’ violent death rate declined so much that it virtually ceased. The norm against conquering another country is one of many factors, including the advent of nuclear weapons and increased world trade, that contributed to “the long peace” after World War II.

Countries have turned to different ways to control other governments

One of the consequences of the emergence of the norm against conquest was a change in the way countries exercised political control over other countries.

The standard did not magically reverse the incentives of countries that might have taken control of buffer states in previous eras. But it changed the way they tried to control the buffer territory. These countries sought to achieve the same political goals by different means. Thus, we saw an increase in foreign-imposed regimes and changes in the leadership of buffer countries after 1945, such as when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956.

What does this larger story tell us about Ukraine today? If Putin’s goal is limited to overthrowing and replacing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a pro-Russian leader, the consequences for the survival of the norm against conquest would also be limited. However, as scholars such as Kimberly Howe, Roxani Krystalli and their co-authors have shown in the context of Syria, the consequences for Ukrainians would be severe. Moreover, the costs for Russia are likely to be extremely high; invaders rarely accurately assess the costs of occupation.

Until now, Russia was trying to give the impression of playing by the rules

International relations scholars know more about the rise of norms than about the decline. But chipping away at the norm by gobbling up chunks of Ukrainian territory one piece at a time can prove a particularly effective strategy for undermining the norm.

Even though the Kremlin flouts norms and breaks international law, so far even Russia seems to have recognized the need to at least give the impression that it respects international law. In 2014, Russia attempted to obscure its role in the annexation of Crimea by using “little green men” rather than sending clearly identified Russian troops, as it did in 2022. Similarly, there was the pretext of the “Crimean declaration of independence”. and the subsequent deployment of a self-determination rationale for Crimea’s integration into Russia. Likewise, by recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia is about to use a (fictitious) vote to justify irredentism – claiming these territories on the basis of historical and ethnic ties.

In other words, Russia could have taken Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk without giving any justification. Although the justifications are flimsy and unconvincing, there is a reason Russia went to great lengths to provide them, as Villanova political science professor Jennifer Dixon shows. Putin is trying to manipulate existing norms for his own ends. His search for an invasion pretext last week — and the efforts of the United States, its allies, and Ukraine itself to deny him one — only reinforces that point.

This time may be different

Ultimately, however, Putin launched the current war by rewriting history and blaming Ukraine for aggression it did not commit. As bombs fall on Ukrainian cities, is his end goal the Russian annexation of all of Ukraine? Putin’s February 21 speech evokes regret and nostalgia for the territorial borders of the Soviet empire. The response to a Russian effort to change the map of Europe in this way leads to at least two possible outcomes for norm versus conquest.

A strong global response to such an annexation attempt would be a signal of the norm’s strength. The strength of norms that proscribe behavior is most visibly measured when those norms are directly challenged. For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 (using a justification similar to that which Putin seems to be offering), the responding grand military coalition reinforced the norm against conquest.

If, however, the world accepts total annexation of Ukraine, with little effective response – if Ukraine were to be wiped off the map of Europe – the norm against conquest would be gravely, perhaps even fatally, damaged.

Historically, most wars between countries have been fought over territory. The norm against territorial conquest was intended to reduce the incidence of this type of warfare. The risk of reversing the norm is a return to a world of conquest and violent death of the state.

Tanisha M. Fazal is a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and a 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Find her on Twitter at @tanishafazal.