Vladimir Putin arguably understands today’s world better than anyone. He knows that when Russia bullies and attacks weaker neighbours, there is no effective system of international justice or any league of civilised nations willing to stand against it. Media outlets devoted scant coverage to recent events near Crimea, as if this was an unfortunate maritime skirmish; as Putin asserted: “A border incident, nothing more.”
Yet this is to ignore the wider context. In 2014, Russia seized and then annexed the strategically critical Crimean peninsula, before using special forces to trigger a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia spent $3.3bn building a vast 19 kilometer bridge from Russian territory across the Kerch Strait to the Crimea; and now it is trying to obstruct Ukrainian access via this strait to the Sea of Azov. Although the world regards the Russian presence in the Crimea as an illegal occupation, Moscow remarkably asserted that Ukrainian ships were violating maritime law by sailing in the waters adjoining this occupied territory.
Three Ukrainian naval ships were fired on, before being impounded by the Russian authorities along with their entire crews, who were still being detained at the time of writing. Many experts expect that the next step will be Russian encroachments upon the industrial ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, severing Ukrainian access to its own maritime waters altogether. “What we saw… is Putin’s struggle to control the entire Sea of Azov… By shooting, seizing and taking hostages,” commented one Russian opposition leader.
Putin is playing a dangerous, high-stakes game. He has already seized parts of Georgia and has designs on the tiny Baltic republics and other components of the defunct Soviet Empire. Moscow cultivates far-right movements and autocratic regimes across Europe, while establishing permanent military bases in Syria. Meanwhile, the assassination of exiled dissidents sends the gangster-like message that Russia can reach anyone, anywhere. Europe has reacted as expected — issuing sternly-worded statements and threatening symbolic sanctionary measures, while studiously hoping to avoid Putin’s wrath. Meanwhile, Trump reacted with his usual equivocations.
“Either way, we don’t like what’s happening and hopefully it will get straightened out,” Trump said. The US president canceled his planned bilateral meeting with Putin at the G20 summit, yet they still managed a cozy discussion over dinner. Ukraine’s president has called for NATO maritime protection, yet it is difficult to see this occurring, even though one of the original factors behind Ukraine-Russia tensions was the prospect of Kiev joining NATO and moving fully into the West’s orbit. Russia knows what it can get away with — by issuing sufficient denials, accusations and misinformation for apologist propaganda outlets to claim that it was the wronged party, while excusing inaction from states that should know better. Expansionist leaders are never satisfied with one or two conquests.
Military success emboldens them into thinking that they are fulfilling some glorious historic mandate; in Putin’s case reconstructing the USSR. Napoleon went from limited military operations aimed at restoring the borders of post-revolutionary France to an attempt to conquer Europe; bogging Western states down in a decade of war, while exacerbating conflicting territorial claims that would still be bloodily playing themselves out 150 years later. The dismemberment of Ukraine is not an isolated issue, but part of a consistent pattern of Russia aggressively asserting itself into Europe. International law operates on the basis of precedent.
When UN Security Council members fail to act concerning the occupation of Palestinian lands, Syrian war crimes or the Rohingya genocide, they render international justice impotent. When world leaders shirk their obligations to enforce international law, there is no international law; only the law of the jungle, in which the most ruthless autocrats thrive. Meanwhile, small European liberal democracies — which flourished thanks to universal respect for the principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity — risk becoming the first victims. This could be through outright military aggression or the evisceration of their democratic institutions through cyberwarfare, electoral interference, the sponsoring of anti-democratic forces, or purchasing corrupt politicians to sell out their nation.
The Arab world can easily identify such behaviours because we are already observing similar hostile regional actions by Tehran. Iran steadily built up its local political and paramilitary assets and manipulated every aspect of daily life until we woke up one day and Lebanon was no longer a sovereign Arab state, but a Hezbollah protectorate under Iranian hegemony. Meanwhile, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are well advanced down the same path. Events in Ukraine seem far away, yet when we make the effort to understand the context the implications for global security are all too obvious. The issue is not whether Russia should be allowed to dominate an obscure waterway, of which few of us had previously heard, it is a question of whether the civilised world possesses the will and foresight to protect the principles of international justice and territorial sovereignty.