A fortnight into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the advance of the “special operation” is not going as rapidly or easy as the Kremlin thought it would. While Russian forces – whose losses stand at over 11,000 already – still desperately attempt to take the capital, Kyiv, and are resorting to ever more brutal means, over 400 civilians have been killed and over two million have fled the country. This is at the time of this writing, anyway.
What will endure throughout history are the consequences of this war, though, the most seismic of which is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has essentially dared to destroy the current world order.
Many amongst Generation Z imagine the modern nation-state system to be the natural order of the world, with clearly established borders determining what makes one a citizen and another a foreigner, or what defines a violation of national sovereignty and what does not.
Many others have come to see it as a Western-imposed fraudulent system, with not only militants holding that view but even those amongst the Western intelligentsia. Noam Chomsky, for example, predicted decades ago that “what would ultimately be necessary would be a breakdown of the nation-state system―because I think that’s not a viable system. It’s not necessarily the natural form of human organisation; in fact, it’s a European invention pretty much.”
That international order – stemming from the famed Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which attempted to end the long and bitter internal wars that had ravaged mainland Europe – seems on paper like a fair deal: each nation possesses its own borders which are recognised by other nations, allowing its sovereignty and self-determination to be respected by the “international community”.
That, of course, did not prevent the extension of the colonial era, and really only applied to European nations, until the various independence movements in Africa and Asia succeeded in the mid- to late-20th century.
Putting aside the concepts of the spread of liberal democracy or the assent to international institutions, which are common concepts in the international order, the core of the order is the concept of the nation-state and the inviolability of sovereign borders. That is the golden rule which must not be transgressed.
Off paper, however, the nation-state system’s many flaws have been laid bare over the decades, especially in preserving and exacerbating tensions between rival ethnicities and sects throughout much of the developing world. The age of empires may have faded into history, but the nation-state based on a European model seemed,, in many cases, to handle sectarian divisions much worse than some empires ever did.
Despite the many flaws in this kind of system, it has been vigorously regulated and defended over the decades through a number of methods – beginning with talks and negotiations, then moving on to sanctions against an invading nation. In the most extreme cases, any leader or any state that attempted to violate this carefully-guarded and fragile international order by attempting to directly expand their borders or dissolving others’ was usually met with aggressive force.
The pushback of the Iraqi military from Kuwait in 1991, under the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s government, is a prime example of this. After Iraqi forces invaded and occupied the small Gulf nation the previous year, Hussein officially declared Kuwait to be Iraq’s 19th province, attempting to effectively wipe the country and its borders from the world map and incorporate it into Iraq’s.
That was his gravest error, and has since been seen as the act which set up the demise of Iraqi sovereignty and sealed the fate of the eventual destruction of Saddam Hussein’s rule, twelve years later.
This was enabled, not by any moral consequence or ‘karma’, but by the fact that the Iraqi army was decimated from above by coalition forces upon its withdrawal from Kuwait, leaving an apocalyptic scene in which tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed on the long road that came to be known as the ‘highway of death’.
A similar response was seen more recently in 2014, when the terror group, Daesh, bulldozed the border mound separating Syria from Iraq in a blatant display of disregard to the lines drawn in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Following that act, policymakers and analysts recognised the internationalist world view that formed the group’s vision to transcend the state-based international order.
Unlike other ‘jihadist’ militias and movements which sought to build their emirates or Islamic governments within the borders of their respective countries, Daesh – as well as Al-Qaeda – sought to destroy the international order and the concept of nation-states for the sake of a pseudo-‘caliphate’. What followed, as we know, was the international community unifying in a military coalition to eliminate the group.
That overwhelming Western military might brought against the likes of Saddam Hussein’s army and Daesh, therefore, was the direct response to any serious threat to the current international order.
At this point, many will argue that the numerous military interventions, drone strikes, and bombing campaigns carried out by western nations, such as the US, throughout the decades were also violations of that order – but not quite. While they did infringe on the sovereignty of those nations and, at times, directly worked to topple their governments, the US and its allies did not absorb them into their borders.
Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, did not become provinces or states of the US. Even their borders were not altered. Instead, Washington worked to set up friendly governments there, while maintaining its military presence allegedly for security reasons, thus – at least in appearance – keeping the countries’ sovereignty intact and maintaining the international order.
Without getting into the complexities of international law, academics and analysts have outlined that “the temporary occupation of another State’s territory encroaches upon its territorial integrity, but it does not entail a revision of its borders.”
That may also be a primary reason why Israel has also not been sufficiently held accountable over its occupation of Palestinian territory. While Tel Aviv continues to annex land in the West Bank, it does so gradually, through the expansion of Jewish settlements and the destruction of Palestinian homes, rather than an official military annexation. As there is no Palestinian state, the borders of the West Bank territories under the Palestinian Authority (PA) are also barely enforceable or recognised.
Whether one is for or against western interventionist policies, the US and Israel have played their hand cleverly by only engaging in some sort of indirect colonialism.
The same cannot yet be said for Putin’s Russia, which has now stated its aim is to take the entirety of Ukraine. There are real concerns that, if it succeeds, it could set its sights on other neighbouring countries such as Poland or Moldova. For now, we have yet to see whether Putin would fully absorb Ukraine into the Russian Federation or if he would just install a vassal government.
If he chooses the former – and especially if he moves further into Europe – then we could be seeing Moscow’s attempt to create its own new world order. Will there be a ‘highway of death’ moment for it? Or will the breakdown of this international order be allowed to resume, and possibly lead to its reconstruction?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.