Fareed Zakaria sums up nicely why many think the Ukrainian conflict is the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War:
[..] this one involves a great global power, Russia, and thus can and will have far-reaching consequences. And it involves a great global principle: whether national boundaries can be changed by brute force. If it becomes acceptable to do so, what will happen in Asia, where there are dozens of contested boundaries — and several great powers that want to remake them?
“In this century, we are long past the days when the international community will stand quietly by while one country forcibly seizes the territory of another,”
But what is so great about this global principle? There is no reason to think that existing borders are somehow morally the right ones or that they are socially or economically efficient. The territorial integrity principle permits border changes only under very restrictive conditions. Both states have to agree to it or have to agree to a mechanism, such as submitting a dispute to the International Court of Justice or holding a referendum in a territory on annexation or independence.
This all sounds very fair, and it certainly beats force as a way to change borders. Yet, there are costs associated with intransigence on these rules. Territories acquired through violations of these rules often retain an uncertain status in the international system. This may be justified but it rarely enhances the welfare of the people living there (See for example Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus).
Territorial integrity also does not prevent states from incessantly interfering with the domestic affairs of others. Who is to say that the people of a small Central American country are necessarily better off with the United States constantly mingling in their affairs than they would have been if the United States had annexed the territory? Or indeed, if the people of Crimea are worse off if they join Russia than they would be with their powerful neighbor constantly prying into their affairs? (Although we would certainly prefer if they could express this themselves in a fair way). It is not right to pretend that an absence of annexation equals an absence of great power interference.
Moreover, the rules can leave people trapped in a country that they do not identify with and/or a government that abuses them. This was the justification for fudging the rules with Kosovo. Serbia did not agree to Kosovo independence. Yet, a referendum and a somewhat opaque advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice helped legitimize the secession.
Putin now claims that Kosovo set a precedent even though there is no comparable history of abuse in Crimea, and Russia has never recognized Kosovo. At the same time, the European Union and the United Staes are eager to argue that Kosovo did not set a precedent for other oppressed groups and that Kosovo is totally different from South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and so on. This is the kind of maddening but unavoidable inconsistency that led Stanford professor and former U.S. State Department director of policy planning Stephen Krasner to dub so-called principles of sovereignty “organized hypocrisy.”
So why does the United States insist so strongly on this global principle? The most important thing to understand is that the territorial integrity principle serves the interests of some states much better than those of others. Historically, it was smaller powers, especially those surrounded by larger powers in Europe, who were most enthusiastic. This animation of European border changes makes clear why.
Great powers, by contrast, have historically been quite enthusiastic about adding territory via conquest. Yet, the United States has insisted on territorial integrity at least since President Woodrow Wilson. There are a number of reasons for why this is so.
The first is geography. The United States is far removed from other great powers and thus has less need to control border states as “buffer states.”
The second is that the status quo looks best to states that won the last war. Stability in the international system is most attractive to a great power without a recent history of territorial losses. (Stability may also enhance social welfare given the disruption of wars).
The third is liberalism both as an international and a domestic organizing principle. The globalization of production, trade, financial flows both reduce the benefits of conquest and create alternative means for influencing the affairs of others. Domestically, more privately held property and an ideology that promotes self-determination may also make foreign conquests less attractive.
Now let’s consider Russia. None of these three conditions apply to it. Russia has always used buffer states as a way to shield it from the “West.” Putin clearly considers the break-up of the Soviet Union as recent territorial loss that ought to be rectified. And third, Russia is not (anymore) a liberal state, although it does have extensive trade and financial ties that may moderate its behavior.
The point here is that the territorial integrity principle is a terrific principle from the U.S. viewpoint (and from that of most states who value stability) but not necessarily from the perspective of Russia (and possibly China, although more on that some other time). Crimea’s annexation can thus be seen as a challenge to the principle itself and with that to the stability of the system as it is currently constructed.
This only matters if we believe that the manner in which the United States and its allies respond to the Crimea annexation shapes how others expect the United States to behave the next time a great power violates territorial integrity. This is a matter of some contestation (my take is pretty close to that of Jim Fearon’s) but it is why the United States and the European Union are reacting more strongly than they would have if they thought it was only about Crimea.