Consequences of Ukraine: the threat to the international system

Despite Putin’s claims, Russia’s actions in Ukraine can be distinguished from previous Western invasions of debatable legality.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its apparent attempts to destabilise Ukraine more broadly are a clear violation of international law and the principles that have guided interstate relations in Europe since the end of the Cold War. President Putin’s actions set a precedent that could undermine international order and promote further instability in Eurasia and beyond. But in responding, Europe and the United States cannot simply assume that the rest of the world will rally to their side in defence of settled and accepted international rules. The Ukraine crisis comes at a complex moment when the normative basis of international affairs cannot be separated from global politics, and when the West’s international vision provokes disquiet as well as approval.

There can be no doubt that Putin’s use of force and intimidation to redraw state boundaries and take over the territory of other countries strikes at the foundations of the international system. Russia’s actions are a violation of the UN Charter as well as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which guaranteed Ukraine’s borders in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear weapons. The Russian president’s attempts to justify his country’s moves under international law have been unconvincing. In his speech on 18 March Putin correctly observed that international law is generally neutral on the question of territorial secession. But as the International Court of Justice has made clear, this does not apply when declarations of independence are connected with an unlawful use or threat of the use of force. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin claimed a right to self-defence extending to Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. But action on their behalf would not qualify as self-defence, and even the disputed principle of humanitarian intervention is plainly inapplicable to the support of armed groups acting illegally against legitimate Ukrainian law enforcement agents.

The heart of Putin’s justifications lies elsewhere. First, he asserts that the West only pretends to respect international law, and is happy to violate it when Western interests are at stake. As he said in a television interview last month, “The United States can act in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but Russia is not allowed to defend its interests.” Certainly some Western uses of force since the end of the Cold War have been of debatable legality – but they can still be distinguished from Russian moves in Ukraine.

When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 without authorisation from the UN Security Council, the United States argued that the action was justified by a series of unique factors and did not create a legal precedent – a weak argument that seemed to amount to special pleading. But the Kosovar Albanians were facing a campaign of violence from a Serbian regime with a recent history of sponsoring ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Moreover, Kosovo declared independence only after many years of international territorial administration endorsed by the UN Security Council – and there was never any question of Kosovo’s territory being incorporated into any NATO country. The opportunism of Russia in claiming a precedent from Kosovo can be seen by looking back to the statement it submitted to the International Court of Justice in 2009, in which it argued that unilateral secession is permissible “only in extreme circumstances, when the people concerned is continuously subjected to the most severe forms of oppression that endangers the very existence of the people”.[1]

The Iraq war of 2003 was difficult to justify under the UN Charter, but it was not aimed at territorial aggrandizement. Putin also mentioned the Western-led intervention in Libya in 2011 as an example of Western lawlessness; he said that the “reset” between the US and Russia ended “right after the events in Libya”. NATO’s intervention in Libya did not aim to break up the country – though it may lead to its fragmentation – and it was authorised by the UN Security Council. Nevertheless many countries around the world – by no means only Russia and China – felt that NATO forces in Libya overstepped the mandate of protecting civilians to pursue a policy of regime change.

The second part of Putin’s justification for Russian actions lies in a positive appeal to a set of principles that amount to a fundamentally different vision of international order from that held by Western liberal states. Indeed, Putin’s conception of the ground rules for global politics is essentially anti-liberal.In place of the liberal emphasis on a neutral rules-based order, Putin asserts Russia’s right to maintain a sphere of influence in its neighbourhood.  Instead of the West’s support for pro-democratic uprisings, Putin upholds the importance of stability and strong leadership to prevent the growth of extremism. Where liberals claim to support a doctrine of responsibility to protect civilians based on their common humanity, Putin puts Russia’s international weight behind the protection of its own ethnic nationals or those who speak its language. This is a vision of the European order which would have been recognisable to Putin’s historical hero, the 19th century Tsar Nicholas I, who was regarded as a pillar of anti-revolutionary stability across the continent.

It is enough to look around the world to see both the potential appeal of some parts of Putin’s rhetoric and its potentially destabilising effect. In particular, the charge that the Western powers abuse the forms of liberal international order for their own political agendas resonates internationally. The vote on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly in March was revealing. It is true that no more than eleven countries voted against the motion condemning Russian actions. But only 52 percent of UN member states backed the resolution, and such major democratic countries as Argentina, Brazil, India, and South Africa abstained. Many of the countries that abstained said they supported the principle of non-intervention, but warned that the vote would not promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict and seemed reluctant to be drawn into what they perceived as geopolitical manoeuvring between the West and Russia.

The vote and earlier controversies around such elements of the liberal international vision as the International Criminal Court and the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect suggest that the EU faces a world in which the basis of international order is contested. There is little overt support for Russia’s infringements of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the prohibition on using force or threat to alter state boundaries or impose a political settlement on another country retains widespread backing, at least in principle. But the EU and United States are not accepted in much of the world as the arbiters of international order. They need to put in some work to clarify and broaden the support base of their global vision if they want to renew a coalition in defence of liberal international ground rules.


This commentary is part of a strand of work ECFR is running on the global consequences of the Ukraine crisis. The program will include longer policy briefs and reports and web publications as well as podcasts and public and private events.

The other articles in the series are:

Introduction: The global consequences of Ukraine

Consequences of Ukraine: The threat to the international system

In Asia, local concerns outweigh global significance of the Ukraine crisis

Consequences of Ukraine: Europe’s fragile cohesion

In Middle East, Ukraine crisis vindicates disillusion with West


The nightmare for German businesses: an “Asian Crimea”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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