What Crimea did to international relations?

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Crimea might mark of a new era of greater fluidity and much more open power balancing in international relations as Russia’s de jure annexation of Crimea gives the green light for actors waiting to unfreeze territorial disputes. [i]

The question raised by Crimea is whether ‘the west’ can ever be expected to react decisively to violations of international norms, when it reacted laxly once sovereignty, protected under the UN charter and the Budapest memorandum, was openly violated in Europe. In addition, President Putin’s argumentation that Russia’s actions were justified by the protection of Russian citizens in Crimea threaten to further delegitimize the concepts of humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect.

While international norms were broken and rhetorically challenged, the US, EU and its member-states mostly restricted themselves to expressing ‘deep concern’ about the situation.  

Their most decisive move were the two rounds of sanctions introduced by both Europe and the US imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian and Crimean officials. The US addressed only a few actors from Putin´s closest circle who have direct influence over him, like Gennady N. Timchenko, head of the Volga Group, businessmen Arcady and Boris Rotenberg and Vladimir I. Yakunin, president of Russian Railways. Europe´s list of sanctions in contrast was overall mostly symbolic.

Neither list included core businessmen among them Igor I. Sechin and Aleksey B. Miller, the heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively, the companies on which the wealth of Russian decision makers depends most.[ii]  

Therefore, what really lets the world order totter is the fact that President Putin got away with Crimea so easily,thereby revealing a world in which US, EU and member-states do not decisively defend those established rules.

Given this new unsanctioned space for political action and discourse in the international arena, it might not be coincidental that political actors began to flex their muscles and act and talk as they please reviving territorial conflicts.

Thus, on 13th of March, President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, claimed to be absolutely certain that his country would re-establish the “territorial integrity” lost in the war with Armenia. “Not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also a large part of present-day Armenia are ancient Azerbaijani lands”, Aliyev said. [iii]

The high commission of the unrecognized republic Pridestrovia filed an official request to Duma chairman Sergey Narishkin stating the republic’s desire to join the Russian federation.[iv]

The dispute over the South China Sea erupted once again when on 9th of May China deployed an oil rig in a disputed Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam.[v]

Russia also seems to have gotten the west´s ‘we will not defend order if that harms our national interest’ message. According to NATO and Washington, Russian troops continue to be stationed at the eastern border of Ukraine.[vi] Meanwhile since Crimea pro-Russia protesters and militia managed to seize government buildings in at least a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine. They are widely believed to receive Russian support. [vii][viii] Russia continuously denies its involvement while speaking of the rights to self-determination of pro-Russians in the east.

Most recent moves by US, EU and member-states, suggest that they are now attempting to restore their crumbling image as the self-proclaimed guardians of the established international order. They hardened sanctions and speak of NATO reform and energy independence to have greater capacity to scare off Russia in the future without paying the price of icy winters in Europe.

While EU sanctions still leave big business untouched, the US finally including head of oil giant Rosneft Igor Sechin and Sergei Chemezov of the hi-tech firm Rostec into their list of sanctioned individuals in reaction to the events in eastern Ukraine.[ix]

Meanwhile, the European Union is also discussing energy diversification to decrease its dependence on Russia. In the European Council Meeting on 20-21st of March the member states explicitly agreed to address the issue of energy dependency “through a further diversification of supplies and routes, increased energy efficiency, smart grids, improving opportunity for integration of renewable energy into network and increased production of domestic energy resources.” The same goals were reaffirmed in the G7 Rome Energy Ministerial Meeting.[x] The EU plans to have a road map for energy diversification by June. [xi]

Even if there was real commitment, it would take long to create an energy independent Europe with a strong angst-inducing military alliance, able to induce rule-compliance. Experts say that energy diversification will at least take 6 to 10 years.[xii][xiii][xiv] [xv][xvi]

As defence is concerned, NATO’s role is this story is mostly figurative, as Ukraine is not part of the alliance, hence not covered by art. 5. However, NATO now claims to intend to move back to its traditional deterrence function. Speaking at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels Forum, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, said that NATO must draw from the Crimea events and reposition itself given that Russia which used to be a “partner” was now acting as an “adversary.”[xvii]

In early April, NATO announced the suspension of all “practical” civilian and military cooperation with Russia in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council.[xviii] On the 22nd of April a multinational group of four NATO minesweepers and a supply vessels left the German port of Kiel to deploy to the Baltic Sea. A week later NATO member states have deployed additional fighter jets to the alliance’s Baltic Air Policing mission. [xix]Thefirst contingent of 600 US troops that send to the Baltics and Poland US troops has landed in Poland for military exercise on the 24th of April. [xx][xxi]              

All 28 NATO membership states apart from Poland have decreased their defence spending since the cold war. Only U.S., U.K., France, Turkey and Estonia actually spend the minimum membership–requirement of 2% of their GDP on defence in 2013. The Putin regime in contrast has increased defence spending 79% over the past decade a Brookings study claims. [xxii]

However, one might doubt that there even is such genuine commitment to either European energy or NATO reform. Thus, in June Austrian energy firm OMV struck a deal with Russia’s Gazprom to extend the proposed South Stream pipeline 2,500-kilometer reaching from Russia under the Black Sea through Bulgaria and Serbia to Hungary now up to Austria where previously it was supposed to end in Italy. A government adviser in Berlin told Reuters bringing South Stream’s gas to Austria was in particular in the interest of one of the core European players Germany as it was better its “industry and gas security than pumping it far to the south to Italy.”[xxiii]

Meanwhile the current German defence Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen once  said in one of the country´s popular television talk-shows “Günter Jauch” that increasing defence budgets would be unreasonable for European Countries in the current economic climate. The strength of Europe was its economic might, which should rather be invested in, she said. She also alleged that other European countries might share that view.

Thus, so far it is hard to believe that the west will now be willing or able to really take any costly and decisive measures to restore the status quo ante in Ukraine, or for that matter in international relations as a function of it.

Photo credit: PBS


[ii] Alexey Navalny in The New York Times, How to Punish Putin, March 19, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/opinion/how-to-punish-putin.html

[iii]  Interfax, Президент Азербайджана заявил о неизбежном возвращении Нагорного Карабаха, March 20, 2014, http://www.interfax.ru/world/365953.ru/world

[iv] Vedomasti, Приднестровьехочетвойтив составРоссии, March 18, 2014,  http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/24095441/pridnestrove-kak-krym

[v] The New York Times, Trouble in the South China Sea, May 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/opinion/trouble-in-the-south-china-sea.html?_r=0

[vi] Financial Times, Ukraine mobilises troops as it braces for Russian invasion, March 16, 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2279aae2-ad2b-11e3-8ba3-00144feab7de.html#axzz2wGT5DPy4, also see: Itartas, Still too many Russian troops on eastern Ukrainian border – German chancellor , April 1, 2014 http://en.itar-tass.com/world/726166

[vii]The Gurdian, Putin says Geneva agreement no longer viable after Ukrainian military action, May 2, 2014,

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/02/putin-geneva-agreement-not-viable-ukraine-military-action,The New York Times, Us and Russia Pact to Defuse Ukraine Crisis, APRIL 17, 2014,

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/18/world/europe/ukraine-diplomacy.html?_r=0

[viii]Financial Times, Ukraine crisis: Lethal shootout casts shadow over Geneva deal, April 20, 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5fb1eddc-c86c-11e3-a7a1-00144feabdc0.html#axzz30sFAdrvd

[ix] BBC, New US sanctions target Russian officials and companies, April 28, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-27193628

[x] European Commission,Press release, G7 Rome Ministerial Energy Meeting, 6 May 2014, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-530_en.htm?locale=en

[xi] Reuters: How to diversify Energy Supply, April 17, 2014  http://www.reuters.com/video/2014/04/17/how-to-diversify-europes-energy-supplies?videoId=310996076

[xii] Economist, European energy security, Conscious uncoupling, April 5, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21600111-reducing-europes-dependence-russian-gas-possiblebut-it-will-take-time-money-and-sustained

[xiii] Михаил Ходорковский – интервью Савику Шустеру, min 43:35, April 25, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VfO3Y7icqY

[xiv]Reuters, Ukraine crisis highlights NATO defense spending problem: Hagel, May 2, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/02/us-usa-nato-hagel-idUSBREA410EX20140502,  Guardian, Russia spends more of its wealth on arms than US in 2013, April 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/14/russia-spends-more-wealth-arms-us-2013

[xv] The New York Times, Our New Isolationism, September 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/09/opinion/keller-our-new-isolationism.html?_r=0

[xvi] Wall Street Journal, NATO’s Military Decline, March 25, 2014,

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303802104579449571957045910

[xvii] Wall-Street-Journal, NATO’s Top Commander Reflects on Crimea,  Mar 23, 2014, http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2014/03/23/natos-top-commander-reflects-on-crimea/

[xviii]NATO official website, last accessed May 5, 2014,  http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news.htm

[xix]Reuters, U.S. troops, British planes deployed to Baltics over Ukraine, April 28, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/us-ukraine-crisis-baltics-idUSBREA3R18C20140428

[xx] BBC, Ukraine crisis: US troops land in Poland for exercises, April 24, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27136276

[xxi] The New York Times, U.S. Military Exercises to Begin in Eastern Europe, April 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/world/europe/us-military-exercises-to-begin-in-eastern-europe.html?_r=0

[xxii]Wall Street Journal, NATO’s Military Decline, March 25, 2014,

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303802104579449571957045910

About Author

Rina Soloveitchik

Rina Soloveitchik is a contributor at the International Security Observer. Rina holds a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She previously lived and worked as a journalist in Ukraine and Russia. Currently she works as a researcher for the Eurasia Program of a major international organization and as a freelance journalist.

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