With Russian President Vladimir Putin determined to annex Crimea—and perhaps other chunks of territory around Kharkov and Donetsk—the crisis he has triggered goes beyond the fate of Ukraine as an independent nation.
The world now faces a bigger danger: that of Russia becoming a rogue state. A rogue state not only ignores international law and norms, but is also prepared to betray its own signature. In recent decades, a number of countries have gone rogue for varying lengths of time. In the 1980s, Syria acted as a rogue by intervening in Lebanon’s policies. In 1990, Iraq under Saddam Hussein went rogue by invading and briefly annexing Kuwait. Iran under the mullahs has acted as a rogue state by violating commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which it was a founding signatory. Under the Kim dynasty, North Korea too has acted as a rogue state by promoting tension in its region with a series of provocations, at times bloody.
However, what Putin seems bent on doing is more alarming because Russia could become the first major power to go rogue since Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia with the excuse of protecting the German minority in the Sudetenland. Putin is also using the “kith-and-kin” excuse for his actions against Ukraine.
By moving against Ukraine, Putin has violated not only international law but also a long list of treaties and agreements signed by the Soviet Union and then by Russia as successor-state. To start with, Putin’s moves violate the 1975 Helsinki Accords signed by former Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev to acknowledge détente as the framework for East–West relations in the final phase of the Cold War. Those accords codified the principle of the inviolability of European borders that had been implicitly accepted, though often violated, since the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815). A brainchild of the then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, détente helped the USSR prolong its life by a quarter of a century thanks to access it secured to global capital markets.
Next, Putin violated the Budapest accord of 1994, signed by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, which sorted out relations between Ukraine and Russia in the post-Soviet era. Putin cannot ignore these facts by blaming Brezhnev and Yeltsin. He put his own signature to new accords in 2009 confirming all previous agreements.
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Kissinger tried to gloss over Putin’s rogue behavior by reminding us that Ukraine had been part of Russia for centuries. That, however, is inexact to say the least. Ukraine was never part of Russia. Both Ukraine and Russia, and more than 100 other nations, were part of the same empire. If belonging to the same empire in history were to be the determining factor, then one could pretend that the UK could still lodge a claim of ownership against the United States, or India for that matter.
Under the Tsars, the special status of Ukraine and a number of Muslim khanates in Central Asia and Siberia were recognized. As successor to the Tsarist Empire, the USSR acknowledged that specificity by recognizing Ukraine as one of its 15 constituent republics. Successive Soviet constitutions also recognized the right of all constituent nations of the union to self-determination, including secession. Ukraine had an even more special status. Although part of the USSR, it had its own seat in the United Nations. Byelorussia also had its separate seat.
Putin’s roguish behavior goes even further. He has violated two sets of treaties under which Ukraine agreed to allow the Russian navy to continue using the Soviet naval facilities in Sebastopol and Balaklava. Under a first treaty, Russia obtained a lease until 2017. A second agreement extended that lease to 2042. Under the terms of both leases, Russia could not increase the size of its military personnel in the Crimean peninsula or introduce new types of weaponry, including nuclear weapons, without Ukraine’s consent. Neither could Russian troops be deployed outside their bases except for military exercises in specified areas and under the supervision of Ukrainian military. Nor could Russian military and security personnel intervene in Ukrainian domestic politics. Putin has violated all those terms in the most brazenly provocative manner.
The US and the European Union need to be very worried. In the past few weeks, Putin has violated the terms under which Russia is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has ignored terms that enabled Russia to achieve a partnership agreement with NATO. Needless to say, Putin has also made a mockery of Russia’s membership of the G8, which he is supposed to be hosting in Sochi in June.
Several of Russia’s near and far neighbors should also feel threatened by Putin’s apparent decision to go rogue. Russia does not have border demarcation accords with China and Japan and maintains territorial claims against both. It already has large chunks of Chinese and Japanese territory under occupation. Russia has two treaties with Tehran, dated 1928 and 1942, under which it could land troops in Iran to “protect its legitimate interests.” Russia’s borders with several other former Soviet republics are also threatened, among them Kazakhstan and Latvia. Putin has already annexed chunks of Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—without taming his appetite. He may try another land grab aimed at the Black Sea coast down to Adjara. Pursuing his dream of a Euro-Asian empire, Putin has already reduced Byelorussia to vassal status.
Washington is bound to feel uneasy about Putin’s behavior. If he can ignore so many treaties and agreements, would he hesitate to violate accords signed over the decades on a range of issues—most notably arms limitation, including a global reduction in nuclear weapons?
Small states going rogue is one thing; a major power such as Russia acting roguishly is another.