A day before Russia formally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last month, President Obama held a White House press conference to deliver some stern words to Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin.
[This] is exactly what larger, more powerful countries have been doing to their weaker neighbors since the rise of the nation-state 200-odd years ago.
Announcing American sanctions on Russians close to Putin, Obama declared, “Nations do not simply redraw borders, or make decisions at the expense of their neighbors simply because they are larger or more powerful.”
Wait … they don’t?
The president might want to dust off his high-school world history books, because a quick skim through the annals of international relations would tell him that that is exactly what larger, more powerful countries have been doing to their weaker neighbors since the rise of the nation-state 200-odd years ago. And, with few exceptions, it’s a tactic that continues to be effective — if one’s priority is territorial expansion, not international popularity.
Putin is hardly the only world leader who’s gotten away with this sort of incursion to pad borders.
Russia proved that six years ago, seizing on a moment of vulnerability in another former Soviet Republic, when it sent troops into the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The regions remain under the effective control of the Kremlin to this day (though Georgia still claims them both as part of her country).
Putin is hardly the only world leader who’s gotten away with this sort of incursion to pad borders, assert spheres of influence and protect national interests.
In 1984, Indian troops surged across the frigid, windswept peaks of the Siachen glacier, more than 17,000 feet in elevation, to establish control of the heretofore no-man’s land in the disputed region of Kashmir. The pre-emptive land and air offensive, called Operation Meghdoot, prompted retaliation from neighbor and archrival Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir, and triggered an open-ended conflict over the glacier that has been dubbed ”the world’s highest battlefield.”
As the New York Times recounted in a 1999 article on the conflict, ”Fifteen years of refrigerated combat have brought only 15 years of hardened stalemate. The Pakistanis cannot get up to the glacier; the Indians cannot come down.”
In 2014, the situation is largely unchanged — dubious as the benefits of this particular land grab may be, India retains control atop Siachen three decades after first seizing the frozen peak.
Or take the Western Sahara, a sweep of African desert along the Atlantic Ocean, which colonial ruler Spain was prepared to grant independence to back in 1975. That’s when Moroccan King Hassan II ordered what became known as the “Green March” — a surge of 350,000 Moroccan troops that crossed a few miles into Western Sahara to effectively claim the neighboring territory as their own. Despite a long-running insurgency fueled by local Saharawi grievances and international efforts at mediation, Morocco remains the de facto ruler of this turf nearly four decades later.
And don’t even get the Argentinians started on the Falkland Islands, which the British have ruled since establishing a colony there in the mid-1800s, despite claims Buenos Aires insist date back to 1767.
There are exceptions, of course, to the “might makes right” school of national sovereignty.
When Iraqi troops invaded oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990, the United States and its allies rallied to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops back across the Iraqi border with a 42-day aerial bombardment. Why did the international community come to tiny Kuwait’s rescue? Because unlike most modern-day border bending, which affects only the immediate neighborhood, this particular slice of Persian Gulf coastline had outsized strategic significance to Saudi Arabia and other powerful global actors.
Putin knows the strategy involved here and (up to this point) just how far to push the envelope. And if China’s behavior towards disputed islands in the South and East China Sea are any indication, Beijing’s leaders appear to have mastered such history lessons as well.
That is making neighboring countries like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines increasingly jittery. And it’s one of the big reasons why the Obama administration is not just stepping up its rhetoric towards China on those maritime claims, but backing up those statements with military muscle. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a tough message to officials during a stop in Beijing just this week, warning that China was adding ”to tensions, misunderstandings, and could … eventually get to dangerous conflict.”
Hagel also dismissed claims that the West’s failure to keep Russia from seizing Ukraine is a green light for China as it eyes territorial expansion opportunities of its own. ”There is no indication or weakness on the part of the United States as to our complete and absolute commitment to the security of Japan,” the secretary said en route to Tokyo.
The question is whether Beijing believes it.
Why you should care
Russia’s land grab in the Crimea is just another example of how to get away with global bullying, and China is taking notes.