The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Determine the Future of Sovereignty

The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Determine the Future of Sovereignty
A Ukrainian soldier in the trench, on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, Mariupol, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 21, 2022 (AP photo by Andriy Dubchak).

Beyond its immediate implications for European security, the current crisis at the Ukraine-Russia border highlights the enduring importance of state sovereignty as an ordering principle in world politics, notwithstanding frequent claims that globalization has rendered it obsolete. It also exposes the tendency of governments to invoke, dismiss or reinterpret this bedrock principle to suit their situational needs. In fact, global stability now depends on whether the United States and European Union are able to reaffirm and defend the centrality of state sovereignty against a Russian attempt to dismiss it.

On one level, the Ukraine situation would seem to have turned long-standing Russian and Western rhetoric on sovereignty on its head. Russia, an erstwhile, self-styled champion of the Westphalian norm of non-interference within the United Nations, now has 100,000 troops poised to invade, seize territory from and perhaps extinguish the independence of its neighbor. Meanwhile, Western nations, which since the end of the Cold War have pioneered doctrines of “contingent” sovereignty—in which a state’s sponsorship of terrorism, commission of mass atrocities or participation in other bad behavior negates its authority—have become sovereignty hard-liners, characterizing Russia’s actions as a threat to world order and insisting on Ukraine’s absolute right to determine its own geopolitical alignment. 

The reality, of course, is far more complex. The Kremlin’s ostensible defense of state sovereignty in the past has focused narrowly on protecting authoritarian regimes—including Russia’s own—from meddling Western efforts to promote human rights, democracy and open societies, as well as from military interventions. Russia has deflected, for instance, nearly all U.N. Security Council efforts to check Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which the Kremlin supports. 

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.