Saturday, April 26, 2014

Russia’s Putin on National Sovereignty: Political Realism Undone?

On February 28, 2014, Ukraine’s UN Ambassador Yurly Sergeyev informed the Security Council that Russia had invaded the Crimean Peninsula, a semi-autonomous region of the sovereign state. Heretofore, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, Russia had agreed in a treaty to respect the territorial borders of the Soviet Union’s former republic. After briefly discussing whether Putin’s land-grab should have come as a surprise to the world, I take a critical look at the Russian president’s rationale for invasion. I argue that political realism (i.e., strategic interests of particular states being the signature feature of international relations) undergirds Putin’s geo-political view. This foundation is problematic as evinced by Putin’s inconsistencies on national sovereignty.

Coming on the heels of the Olympic games meant to showcase Russia to the world, Putin’s show of force must have come as a complete surprise to the world.[1] After all, on the day before the obviously-planned invasion, Vitally Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations had dismissed with a burst of haughty laughter a journalist’s question on whether Russia was suddenly conducting its “military exercises” near Crimea as a cloaked precursor to invasion. Indeed, the diplomat even conveyed a sense of having been insulted by the very question! We, the rest of the world, were being played like a sleepy fiddle.

A day or two before the invasion, unmarked Russians brought in by bus (members of Putin’s favorite biker group being among them) took over the provincial legislature. Once the Russian thugs were in control there, the pro-Russian Crimean leader, Sergey Aksyonov, somehow found himself installed as the region’s ruler. He “returned the favor” by asking Putin for help in maintaining peace.[2] The two-step dance by the emperor and his aspiring governor-to-be resulted in a sham referendum quickly followed by a hasty annexation of Crimea as a region of Russia. The sheer speed of these events belied the veracity of the Russian narrative, a mere gloss for the de facto power of possession.

Speaking with U.S. President Barak Obama on the first day of the invasion, Putin stressed “the presence of real dangers to the lives and health of Russians who are currently present in the Ukrainian territory.” Putin stressed that Russia reserves the right to defend its interests and the Russian-speaking people who live in Ukraine.[3] Indeed, the Russian president claimed that Russia’s parliament had explicitly given him the right to intervene in Ukraine militarily. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksadr Turchynov insisted that any reports of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the Crimean region being at all threatened were pure fiction, and thus merely a Russian front or subterfuge for raw military aggression.

Surely international law does not confer Russia, or any other sovereign country for that matter, with the right to invade (not to mention annex) other sovereign states simply because its ex-patriots may find their ethnicity is not fully protected; strategic geo-political interests of a state runs up against the doctrine of national sovereignty. Of course, this doctrine can give way, as a natural rather than state-sourced (and thus delimited!) right arguably exists to intervene across national boundaries if the systematic harm to inhabitants is sufficiently grave (e.g., the Nazi holocaust). As a likely subterfuge for taking the entire eastern half of Ukraine after having conquered Crimea, Putin attempted just this rationale. “If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people this is clearly a grave crime,” he said.[4] It would indeed be, were Ukraine’s government turning against ethnic Russians as Assad’s Syrian government had turned on protesters. Yet ironically Putin had vetoed efforts by the UN Security Council to sanction efforts to intervene in Syria, which unlike Ukraine could enjoy the absolutist variant of national sovereignty. Putin’s inconsistency on national sovereignty undercuts not only his credibility, but also that of his political theory of choice, political realism.

Being based on the primacy of a state’s power-interests, political realism implies a semi-permeable rather than absolutist rendering of national sovereignty. In his seventeenth-century masterpiece, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that a sovereign ruler should be given the power to do whatever he wants if peace is the aim. A century earlier, Jean Bodin also held an absolutist view of sovereignty, though unlike Hobbes, the sovereign is bounded by divine law while still ruling rather than only in divine judgment in the afterlife. So even within the absolutist camp, discernable differences exist (albeit premised on the belief in divine punishment—which held considerable sway in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).

Whereas the state that subscribes to political realism (i.e., the primacy of the country’s own interests) regards its national sovereignty as absolute (i.e., being invaded is not in the state’s geo-political interests), the story is quite otherwise with respect to the sovereignty of other countries (i.e., being invaded may be in the realist state’s interests). This inconsistency with respect to national sovereignty points to a fault-line running through political realism itself. 

At least in Russia's case, the absolutist interpretation is only to be selectively defended (i.e., when violating it is contrary Russia’s geo-political national interests), and with it the right to intervene in another country’s internal affairs. The oxymoron of a state-designated right being somehow valid beyond that state’s borders is itself indicative of the sheer incredulity of Putin’s stance. Perhaps the truly perplexing question bears on why the ruler of a modern empire would suppose that such logical problems can safely be dismissed. Perhaps the answer is that the world is all too willing to comply, being still too comfortable with antiquated ideas and ways.

[i] See “The 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia: ‘Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.”
[ii] Chelsea Carter, Diana Magnay, and Ingrid Formanek, “Obama, Putin Discuss Growing Ukraine Crisis,” CNN, March 1, 2014.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Jacob Resneck and Olga Rudenko, “Putin Issues New Threat,” USA Today, April 25, 2014.