What Putin learnt from the West

In his opening remarks at yesterday’s NATO conference, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and its annexation of Crimea in March this year, had torn up the rule book and undermined the international order. This has been a standard refrain since the Ukrainian crisis began. Russia, it is argued, has trampled on the very foundations of the postwar international order, disregarding sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-intervention. Moreover, it is argued that Russia has led its campaign under the spurious pretence of protecting the rights of Russian speakers in the Ukraine. The US secretary of state John Kerry summed this sentiment up best: ‘You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pre-text.’

This presentation of events totally ignores the role the West has played in undermining the international order since the end of the Cold War. From the 1990s onwards, America and various European nations, have explicitly argued that state sovereignty (as understood in the terms of the UN charter) must be redefined. Concerns about human-rights abuses, democracy and self-determination must trump sovereignty, the charter argues. The emerging ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine is the latest incarnation of this notion.

After the end of the Cold War, Western states have waged conflicts in the name of human rights. They have actively supported secessionist movements in weaker states, from the European Commission’s support for the constituent republics of Yugoslavia to secede, to the West’s support for the secession of South Sudan or Kosovo, which has prompted those states to break up.

Vladimir Putin provoked howls of outrage from the Western establishment when he cited the ‘Kosovo precedent’ as justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kosovo, Western leaders shouted back, was different. In reality, however, Putin was just following the script written by America and Europe.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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