It all seems a little like ancient history now, but last year Vladimir Putin was at the center of a very different geopolitical tug-of-war. The Russian president was facing the possibility of American military action in Syria, and, to voice his opposition to it, he decided to write a New York Times op-ed.
"Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders," Putin, or perhaps his ghostwriter, began. "It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies."
The Russian president went on to explain how "decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus," and that an American-led strike against the Syrian regime "could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
"We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos," Putin wrote. "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."
Rereading those words after the events of the past few days is jarring. On Saturday, Putin received authorization for the use of Russian troops in Ukraine, following a series of protests that led to the ousting of Putin-ally Viktor Yanukovych. Reports from Crimea, a largely autonomous region within southern Ukraine that has a sizable ethnic Russian population, suggest that troops have already taken over key government buildings.
As Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times has pointed out, Russia hasn't sought U.N. approval yet, nor suggested they ever will. Additionally, Russia seems to be flouting the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, also signed by the United States and Britain, which saw the states agree to recognize the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine in return for Kiev destroying its nuclear arsenal.
The big worry is that if Crimea is annexed, other parts of eastern Ukraine will be next. War is beginning to look like a grim possibility. "Conflict in Crimea must be averted," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted Friday, before spelling out the legal implications. "All must fully respect territorial integrity, international agreements and rule of law."
What explains Putin's apparent about-turn on the subject of international law? Again, we should revisit his New York Times op-ed, but this time look to his discussion of "exceptionalism."
Putin was talking about American exceptionalism, which is a very real thing and has allowed the United States to flout international law in the past. But we should also think about other forms of exceptionalism. Putin's justification for intervention in Ukraine is to protect Russian speakers and those of Russian ethnicity. It's a similar argument Russia made to justify intervention in South Ossetia and Transnistria. For Putin, apparently, the interests, or rather, perceived interests of those people are enough to flout international law and dialogue. It's Russian exceptionalism, you could say.
Of course, the fact that there are so many Russians outside of Russia is a relatively unique legacy of empire and Soviet expansionism, and it's not always a very pretty picture, as the Crimean Tatars deported from Crimea after World War II would tell you. But it is a legacy Putin apparently wants to revisit, as can be seen in his plans for a "Eurasian Union," a concept designed not only to rival the European Union but also give Russia back the geopolitical clout it presided over before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Few analysts predicted Putin's actions over the last few days, and there are still some good arguments that, for all the noise and commotion, Putin is ultimately just saber rattling and has no desire for the scale of conflict that a war with Ukraine would require. Others have suggested that economic measures from the United States and/or the European Union could sting far more than Putin expects. When Putin wrote his New York Times op-ed in September, he was warning that exceptionalism could easily lead to overreach. It's a fair point, but Putin, apparently, can't take his own advice.
Still, Putin's op-ed is a useful reminder for the next time that the Russian president talks about "international rule of law and the order of balance" – it's one rule for you, and a very different one for me.