Whenever the West views Russia’s seizure of the Crimea or China’s belligerent behaviour towards its neighbours, it does so through the perspective of international law and a sense of morality heavily skewed towards the status quo. Indeed, these are often the same; international law merely being the codification of sorts of the status quo, and the morality that accompanies it.
This is because the current international order has largely been established by the West, given that they have held power for so long. This is reflected not just in material organizations such as the UN or IMF, but in norms and values too. Today the interests of the West are for stability, peace, and order. The West are satisfied with the distribution of gains, and these interests are conducive to their highly sophisticated, fragile, and energy-dependent economies. Norms of non-aggression and cooperation have been built up, although occasionally abandoned by the West itself at times. Any disruption to these pillars of international society are subsequently regarded as an immoral violation of what is right.
Nevertheless, their beliefs are sincere. If they are indeed hypocritical, they are unaware of it. And I am not trying to suggest everything is relative; there is right and wrong and indeed what the West holds to be right seems right to me. But that doesn’t mean their (and probably my own) conception of what is right is independent of what is in their interests. The West today are the ‘Haves’, as E.H. Carr would say, and Russia and China amongst the ‘Have Nots’.
If Russia annexes a province which it borders, the population of which is majority ethnic Russian which displays a preference to return with it after a few decades separation in a centuries-long union, with minimal use of force and casualties, Putin is described as Hitler. Many of those same people call George W. Bush a great statesman for invading two entire countries thousands of miles away with no ties to America against deep hostility from their populations, causing tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of tragedies and much instability. In fairness, the elections held in Iraq and Afghanistan were conducted as fairly as possible, whereas the 96% support for union with Russia in the Crimean referendum did reek of fraud. Nevertheless, most Western commentators and statesman regarded a referendum in and of itself, before the voting had actually taken place, as illegitimate.
The only reason I can think of why one set of elections is legitimate and the other not, cannot be the support of international bodies such as the UN, which America did not even obtain in Iraq. But that perhaps America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan were for legitimate ends, combating terrorism, whereas Russia’s were not and seen as out dated, to expand its power based upon traditional metrics (land, population, strategic bases etc.).
However, the West have no interests in expansion as they did in centuries past, whereas Russia does. It lost the Crimea when Khrushchev gave it as a gift to the Ukraine, his home country, during the Soviet Union when such a change was merely a formality. This is considered by many Russians as a wrong that should be righted. Perhaps most importantly, the Crimea is strategically important for Russia which rents several strategic bases from the Ukraine here, home to its Black Sea Fleet and outlet onto the Mediterranean.
If Ukraine ever joined NATO which it was nudging towards, it could cast out the Russians with impunity. Both the West’s record of opportunistic expansionism with both NATO and the EU in eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War whilst Russia was at its weakest, despite assurances to Russia that this would not happen, and strong anti-Russian and pro-Western feeling in much of Ukraine as demonstrated by the overthrow of Ukraine’s legitimate, democratically elected government by pro-Western demonstrators, Russia was rightfully concerned it risked losing the Crimea later when its hands would be tied. Ukraine’s internal weaknesses and the casus belle Russia enjoyed because of threats, largely made up, to the Russian-speaking minority within Ukraine, also gave it a great opportunity to act.
The argument which many used that Russia’s invasion was unacceptable, such as William Hague accusing Russia of nineteenth century (coincidentally, the most peaceful century) behaviour in the twenty-first century, reeked of hypocrisy. Not only has the West engaged in such behaviour itself recently, but if such behaviour is to be discounted because they had different, ‘legitimate’ goals, then these are only legitimate because the West says so after the horrific experience of 9/11. China frowned on such disregard for state sovereignty. And if invasion for the purposes of expanding traditional conceptions (read, 19th century) of power is illegitimate, then this is because the West has no burning national interests or historical revisionist claims itself for such acts.
History is littered with examples of countries not just championing for instrumental reasons certain principles beneficial to their interests, but coming to honestly believe in the ethical superiority of those principles and subsequent championing of them for the morality of the cause rather than the interests they once furthered. England engaged in piracy (during the Elizabethan period) before Britain was against it (when it had an extensive Empire of its own); America championed the rights of neutral third parties to trade between belligerents (as during the Revolutionary war when it traded with both Britain and France) before it was against it (during the Civil War when Britain traded with both the North and the South), and; Western powers champion the use of air power as a progressive and efficient means of conducting military operations (Kosovo, Iraq, Libya) after they were against it (Guernica, the Blitz).
It is not because of any moral failing per se but rather the result of the fact that one’s views on what is right change as one’s interests change. The West is genuinely outraged by this annexation. But the West itself has recently trampled upon the notions of state sovereignty and non-aggression. It was the West’s actions which largely forced Russia into this invasion by encroaching upon its territory and threatening to strip it of its Black Sea bases.
Russia’s actions are not immoral as it had legitimate claims upon the Crimea which were threatened by Western expansionism (done incredibly stupidly), and a majority of Crimeans seem supportive. But perhaps the biggest reason for the West to accept this invasion would be something which we have largely forgotten given our hegemony over the international system since the end of the Cold War but must soon relearn. It will be the subject for another article.
The West must relearn to respect the Great Powers sphere of influences and legitimate interests whether this lives up to liberal humanitarianism’s ideals or not for the purposes of international order, peace, and stability. Ironically those very same interests which explain the West’s opposition to Russia’s newly assertive posture.