UKRAINE: The Return of Conquest? Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine – Opinion

By Tanisha M. Fazal | Foreign Affairs

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long declared that Ukraine has never existed as an independent country. The former Soviet republic is “not even a state”, he said as early as 2008. In a speech on February 21 of this year, he elaborated, arguing that “modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia”. Days later, he ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine. As Russian tanks streamed across the Ukrainian border, Putin seemed to be acting on a sinister, long-held goal: To erase Ukraine from the map of the world. 

What made Russia’s invasion so shocking was its anachronistic nature. For decades, this kind of territorial conquest had seemed to be a thing of the past. It had been more than 30 years since one country had tried to conquer another internationally recognized country outright, since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. This restraint formed the basis of the international system: Borders were, by and large, sacrosanct.             

Compliance with the norms of state sovereignty — including the notion that a country gets to control what happens in its own territory — has never been perfect. But states have generally tried to observe the sanctity of borders or at least maintain the appearance of doing so. Countries could rest assured that of all the threats they faced, an invasion to redraw their borders was unlikely to be one of them. With a main cause of war largely consigned to history, this particular brand of conflict became less common. 

Now, with Russia’s invasion, the norm against territorial conquest has been tested in the most threatening and vivid way since the end of World War II. The war in Ukraine is reminiscent of a previous, more violent era. If the global community allows Russia to subsume Ukraine, states may more frequently use force to challenge borders, and wars may break out, former empires may be reinstated, and more countries may be brought to the edge of extinction.

However disturbing Russia’s attack may be, the rest of the world can still protect the norm that Moscow has challenged. At stake is one of the bedrock principles of international law: The territorial integrity of states. 


“State Death”, as I have called the phenomenon, is a state’s formal loss of control over foreign policy to another state. In other words, when a country concedes that it can no longer act independently on the world stage, it effectively ceases to be its own state. At the beginning of the era of the modern state, one cause of state death predominated: Blunt Force Trauma.

From 1816 to 1945, a state disappeared from the map of the world every three years, on average — a fact all the more alarming given that there were about a third as many states back then as there are now. In that period, about a quarter of all states suffered a violent death at one point or another. Their capitals were sacked by enemy armies, their territory was annexed, and they could no longer act independently on the world stage.

Countries located between rivals were especially susceptible to being taken over. From 1772 to 1795, Poland was carved up by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Poland disappeared from the map of Europe completely for over a century. Paraguay suffered a similar fate in 1870, when it lost a war against Argentina and Brazil. Early in the twentieth century, Japan annexed Korea after a series of peninsular wars with China and Russia.

Besides having an unfortunate location, the lack of strong diplomatic ties with colonial powers was another harbinger of danger for vulnerable states. Trade relations were not enough. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, African and Asian countries that had inked commercial deals with imperial powers such as France and the United Kingdom were more likely to die than countries in Latin America and the Middle East that, having stronger and more formal ties, hosted consulates and embassies from these same colonial powers.

There was, in other words, a hierarchy of recognition that signaled which states were seen as legitimate conquests and which were not. The United Kingdom, for example, signed treaties with precolonial Indian states from Sindh to Nagpur to Punjab that many Indian leaders viewed as a recognition of statehood. But the British never took the next step of establishing diplomatic missions in these states — a slight that was often a prelude to invasion.

Slowly but surely, some leaders started pushing back against the practice of conquest. In the early twentieth century, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a proponent of territorial integrity. The last of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, unveiled as World War I came to a close, referred specifically to protections for states belonging to the League of Nations, which Wilson thought could offer “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” To be sure, Wilson’s commitment to self-determination was limited to European nations; he favored independence for the Poles but was unresponsive to pleas for support from the Egyptians and the Indians.

Nonetheless, Wilson did help the norm against territorial conquest take root. Moreover, his defense of territorial integrity was made easier by the fact that by the time Wilson became president, the United States had completed its own territorial conquests, including its march west and the accompanying capture of Native American lands; it no longer had clear ambitions to acquire additional territory.

Wilson’s successors continued the tradition of opposing territorial grabs. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, expressed strong opposition to Italy’s takeover of Ethiopia and was even willing to delay allying with the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II because Moscow demanded that its subjugation of the Baltic states be recognized as legitimate. Yet Roosevelt’s commitment to the norm, like Wilson’s, was not absolute; Roosevelt previously was willing, for example, to recognize Germany’s conquest of Austria if it would limit war in Europe.

The end of World War II heralded a new era. In the ensuing decades, the practice of territorial conquest did not go completely extinct; witness North Vietnam’s takeover of South Vietnam in 1975; Israel’s occupation of parts of its neighbors; Argentina’s attempt to take over the Falkland Islands; and Iraq’s thwarted invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But generally speaking, countries interfered in other states without attempting to redraw their boundaries. And they were especially unlikely to absorb other internationally recognized states wholesale. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the aim was to prevent the Eastern European country from leaving the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets installed a new, more friendly regime in Budapest but did not lay claim to Hungarian territory. Similarly, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, it installed a puppet government but did not claim territory beyond a cluster of contested islands in the Gulf of Thailand.

Certain occupations, such as those following the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, qualify as violent state deaths. But the United States did not have designs on those countries’ territory; it sought to topple regimes, but it maintained the integrity of borders. The absence of territorial aims does not make one type of violation of sovereignty better or worse than another, but it does represent an important difference. The maps, by and large, stayed the same.


Why the sudden drop-off in territorial conquest after World War II? The answer can be found in a powerful force in international relations: NORMS. As the political scientists Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink have defined the term, a norm is “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” — in this case, states. The leaders who developed the norm against territorial conquest recognized that most conflicts, including World War II, were fought over land.

Establishing a norm against one state taking another’s territory by force was therefore part of a broader project to promote peace. By helping enshrine it in the UN Charter, the United States was determined that the norm would stick. Having emerged from the war much stronger than its allies, the United States viewed enforcing the norm against territorial conquest as a key element of preserving global stability. Newly independent states made similar commitments in the founding documents of regional organizations, such as the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity. Building on earlier attempts to enshrine the concept of territorial integrity in such treaties as the Covenant of the League of Nations, in 1919, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in 1928, a bona fide norm emerged.

For all its benefits, the norm against territorial conquest has also had unintended consequences. One is the hardening of interstate boundaries in ways that create conditions ripe for state failure and collapse. As the political scientist Boaz Atzili has shown, “border fixity” has freed the leaders of weak states from having to direct their attention to protecting their own borders against external predation. Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was able to focus his efforts on extracting resources for personal gain in part because he did not need a strong military to defend his country’s borders. And as the sociologist Ann Hironaka has shown, the norm against territorial conquest also has contributed to the growth of “never-ending wars”. Rather than settling differences over political control by attempting to take over territory, opportunistic leaders have intervened in civil wars in weak states to prolong conflict and further weaken unstable governments — as South Africa did in Angola in the 1980s, for example.

It is not an accident that the norm against territorial conquest emerged after World War II. The horrors of that conflict, combined with the dawn of the nuclear age, incentivized the great powers to avoid future wars. The era of bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union allowed for both regime change and the preservation of international borders. Globalization also reduced the economic benefits of territorial conquest: Increased trade meant that countries could access other states’ resources without resorting to force. 


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shining a light on the precariousness of the norm against territorial conquest. The good news is that the outrage has been swift and broad, with a variety of actors worried that Putin’s attack could undermine the stability of borders globally. Even those who did not participate in the drawing of today’s national borders have spoken out passionately. “We agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited,” Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, said at a February 22 Security Council meeting. “We chose to follow the rules of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations Charter,” he went on, “not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.” Leaders of countries from Albania to Argentina have condemned the Russian invasion on similar grounds.

In part, the fate of the norm against territorial conquest depends on the extent to which Putin violates it in Ukraine. If Putin ends up replacing the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and installing a puppet regime in Ukraine, he would be engaging in blatant regime change and dealing a grave blow to the Ukrainian people. But he would not be challenging the norm against territorial conquest per se. The country would be under indirect, rather than direct, Russian control.

Likewise, if Putin attempts to absorb Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk — areas he has long claimed as Russian territory — and the rest of the world acquiesces, it would weaken but not completely overturn the norm guarding a state’s territorial integrity, because most of Ukraine would remain intact. Even so, the acceptance of a limited violation of the norm might do more damage in the long run than a rejection of a major violation of it. After all, it is likely that the West’s relatively weak response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea emboldened Putin. 

There is reason to fear that Putin’s ambitions go well beyond these goals. As his remarks questioning the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent country suggest, Putin seems interested in much more than merely putting a crony in charge of a former Soviet republic or carving out parts of the country; he may be contemplating redrawing the map of Europe to hark back to imperial Russia. If Russia were to take over the entirety of Ukraine, Putin would drive a stake into the heart of the norm against territorial conquest. 

If Putin went that far, then the fate of the norm would depend largely on how the rest of the world reacted. Norms are nourished by enforcement. In 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad clearly violated the norm against the use of chemical weapons and international law when he fired sarin-filled rockets at the Damascus suburbs. Even though U.S. President Barack Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a redline, the response to this violation was so tepid that one can be forgiven for asking whether the taboo against chemical weapons still holds.

Fortunately, much of the world’s response to the Russian invasion indicates that countries are largely united in their determination to protect the norm.  Unprecedented sanctions on Russia, combined with donations of humanitarian aid and weapons for Ukraine, are applying pressure on Putin while offering relief to Zelensky. If that international resolve were to ebb, however, countries that neighbor Ukraine, such as Moldova, Poland, and Romania, would rightly become nervous about their sovereignty. Indeed, they already are. It is notable that the international community has not banded together to repel Russia’s incursion the way a U.S.-led global alliance turned back Iraq’s attempted annexation of Kuwait. That move not only restored Kuwaiti independence but also reinforced the norm against conquest. Russia, of course, is far more powerful than Iraq ever was and possesses nuclear weapons to boot.

At the same time, enforcing the norm against territorial conquest comes with tradeoffs, about which everyone should be clear-eyed. Protecting Ukrainian sovereignty is likely not worth a third world war — especially one that could go nuclear. The world should not pay the ultimate price just to support the norm against territorial conquest. But the bloody costs that come with that choice cannot be ignored. The West is currently walking a difficult line, seeking to respond to Russia’s invasion with strength but without escalating the conflict.

If the global community fails to enforce the norm against territorial conquest, the states bordering great powers will face the highest risk of extinction. Among the most concerning aspects of a return to a world of violent state death are the effects invasions have on civilians. Annexationists frequently engage in indiscriminate targeting, similar to what is happening today in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, to quell and even depopulate areas. In other words, the demise of the norm against territorial conquest could see an increase in not only the incidence but also the brutality of war.

Even if the global community does not rally behind the norm in the face of a Russian attempt to reinstate imperial boundaries, hope for Ukraine will not be lost. About half of all the states that died violently since 1816 were later resurrected. An important predictor of resurrection is nationalist resistance to being swallowed up. The extent of the resistance can be difficult for invaders to predict. Putin’s expectations certainly seem to have been way off the mark:

The widespread and sophisticated Ukrainian resistance strongly suggests that Russia will find it nearly impossible to control Ukraine. Few occupations in history have ended up achieving their long-term political aims.

If the Ukrainians are left to resurrect their own country, the end result will be good for Ukrainians but not particularly encouraging for the norm against territorial conquest. For norms to remain strong, violations must be punished. A resurrected Ukraine might deter future would-be conquerors from attacking the country. But globally, aspiring invaders would draw a clear lesson: It is possible to get away with territorial conquest. 


It might be more comforting to believe that once established, a norm is permanent, but norms don’t always last forever. Think about how many have slipped away. People no longer settle fights via ritual dueling. Governments rarely issue formal declarations of war; the last time the United States did so was in 1942, even though the country has fought many wars since then. The public assassination of state leaders, which was a regular feature of international politics in Machiavelli’s time, was viewed as abhorrent by the seventeenth century – although covert assassinations continued. If the prohibition against territorial conquest ends up in the graveyard of norms, then history will turn backward, and the world will revisit the brutal era of violent state death. This is not to say that the norm ushered in world peace. There have been plenty of wars since 1945. But a certain kind of war — wars between states over unresolved territorial claims — did decline. Should that style of conflict return, civilians around the world will bear the consequences.

Consider the dozens of ongoing territorial disputes today. Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged in a frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Venezuela and Guyana are at odds over Ankoko Island; and Essequibo in Guyana. Sudan has challenged its border with Ethiopia in the southeast and South Sudan in the south. In the East China and South China Seas, China and its neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, disagree over the sovereignty of a series of islands. Taiwan’s fate is of particular concern. Putin’s arguments about the legitimacy of Ukraine’s statehood echo China’s claim that Taiwan and China are already one country. If it suddenly seems acceptable to take territory by force, leaders of states with long-unresolved territorial claims could attempt to subsume sovereign nations.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is about much more than Russia and Ukraine. Allowing the norm against territorial conquest to wither away would mean taking the lid off territorial disputes around the globe and making millions of civilians more vulnerable to indiscriminate targeting. Right now, the immediate effects of the war are largely contained to Ukraine, Russia, and the countries taking in Ukrainian refugees. But further down the road, if the norm against territorial conquest ends up as another casualty of this war, states would be wise to carefully tend to their borders.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/24/2022 at 12:28 pm

    Chee-A-Tow wrote:

    The most war mongering species on earth.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/24/2022 at 12:33 pm

    Eddie in the UK wrote:

    These are but sanitised analysis of a dirt of world events masterminded by a cabal of power hungry brutes masquerading as defenders of freedom and a non- existent democracy. These disordered mindset do not employ the kingdom of rational reasoning many of us are educated to embrace, because their motives and opportunity approaches are founded on expediency.

    We need new lens through which to view the abominations they commit. The intellectuals need to realign their acquired mental paradigms to accurately comprehend what is really happening.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/25/2022 at 5:45 pm

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/25/2022 at 11:55 pm

    Remember These Numbers: M777ER, M109A4BE, and Pzh 2000

    Lucian K. Truscott IV

    WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, REMEMBER THE ONE, TOO: 155 mm. That’s the size of the projectile fired by all the guns with the other numbers, including the lightweight M777 HOWITZER, the M109 SELF-PROPELLED HOWITZER – both American-manufactured – and the German-made PANZERHAUBITZE Pzh 2000 self-propelled howitzer.

    More than 100 of these deadly artillery pieces are on their way to UKRAINE from stockpiles held by the U.S., the NETHERLANDS, BELGIUM, and ITALY.

    GREAT BRITAIN has also committed to sending a yet-to-be-determined number of mobile lightweight towed 155 mm HOWITZERS, as well as some of its AS90 TRACKED 155 mm guns mounted on heavy tank platforms. CANADA has already sent four of its M777 HOWITZERS and is ready to send more, and FRANCE has committed to sending an unspecified number of their CAESAR self-propelled 155 mm HOWITZERS.

    HEAVY ARTILLERY WEAPONS LIKE THE 155 MM HOWITZER HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR DECADES, but these aren’t the “dumb” big cannons that were used in World War II and VIETNAM. The AMERICAN, GERMAN, BRITISH and CANADIAN big guns, both self-propelled and towed varieties, are wholly computerized.

    The HOWITZERS use slightly different fire control systems, but most include a weather sensor that gauges wind, temperature, and humidity – all of which affect accuracy – a built-in GPS system that automatically and precisely locates the gun’s position, and some include a phased-array radar system that tracks the trajectory of each shell fired and uses that data to correct subsequent rounds fired by the same gun.

    In addition, the U.S. and other countries are sending several different counter-battery radar systems such as the AN/TPQ-36 FIREFINDER RADAR, designed to track incoming fire from enemy mortars, howitzers and rockets. The radar continuously sweeps a 90-degree sector looking for incoming fire and can track 10 separate airborne rounds simultaneously.

    Data collected from the counter-battery radar is fed into the fire control systems of the various 155 mm and 105 mm HOWITZERS, automatically aiming the guns to fire back at the artillery batteries that shot the incoming rounds. IN LESS THAN A MINUTE, HEAVY ARTILLERY FIRE CAN BE BROUGHT TO BEAR ON ANY RUSSIAN CANNON FIRING AT UKRAINIAN POSITIONS.

    All of the mobile 155’s have auto-loading capability, meaning that each artillery round is automatically inserted into the breach of the gun, requiring the soldier serving as loader to provide only the correct number of powder charges for each round fired. Some of the mobile 155’s can fire three shells in only 10 seconds, and can maintain eight rounds a minute over a longer period of time.

    All of the 155 mm HOWITZERS are capable of firing ordinary high explosive rounds 15 miles, and the modern versions of the big guns can fire a new M982 guided munition with very high accuracy a distance of 25 miles.


    With RUSSIAN operations moving into the vast flatlands of the DONBAS, UKRAINE will be able to deploy these heavy artillery pieces to great effect, especially when used with counter-battery radar systems. The U.S. is sending about 200,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition along with the artillery pieces themselves.

    Also, in the same weapons package on its way to UKRAINE are several different kinds of drones, including two variations of the SWITCHBLADE DRONE, a kamikaze-type weapon designed to be sent from front-line positions as a weapon against both enemy soldiers and armored vehicles.

    The U.S. is also sending more than 100 PHOENIX GHOST DRONES, an unmanned aerial platform that can be used for intelligence gathering or to launch precision-guided missiles against Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

    U.S. and NATO countries were reluctant to send heavy artillery and armed drones earlier in the war, supposedly because they were “OFFENSIVE” WEAPONS.

    When your country has been invaded by a foreign army that is killing thousands of civilians and destroying entire cities like Mariupol, which weapons are offensive and which are defensive is a distinction without a difference, in my humble opinion.

    It’s past time we supplied Ukraine with these weapons. The only thing we’ve been doing is wasting them in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least now they’ll be aimed at somebody who needs and deserves the fearsome killing power they can deliver.

    • Chris  On 04/26/2022 at 12:10 am

      This is an ominous inflection point in the war. I fear things could quickly spiral outta control with far-reaching and deadly implications.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/26/2022 at 1:04 am

    Chris: Although I agree with you – somewhat?!!

    Sacrificing Ukraine is not a very good option.

    The other options are bleak, to non-existent …..

    Putin must be stopped: Dead in his tracks, at any cost ….

    To make him an example for others of like mind!!

    Putin could continue to babble about his nuclear arsenal ….

    Putin is a big man – Putin is a student of history …. Putin knows what is coming!!

    • Chris  On 04/26/2022 at 1:08 pm

      Clyde: Putin is also mentally unwell, a loner and a man with no friends! He’s paranoid and sweating the ultimate consequences of his fatal decision to invade an innocent neighbour. He knows his days are numbered, win or lose.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/26/2022 at 8:50 pm

    ‘Putin Never Imagined’ Global Rally Of Ukraine Support, Defense Secretary Says

    By Karen DeYoung and Annabelle Timsit | The Washington Post

    RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a gathering of military leaders in Germany that Ukraine’s “resistance has brought inspiration to the free world and even greater resolve to NATO” — and that Russian President Vladimir Putin “never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely.”

    Austin’s remarks, as he opened a U.S.-organized gathering of more than 40 countries to discuss Ukrainian defense needs for the fight against Russia, came as the United States announced more military aid and plans to reopen its embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Poland said it would send tanks, and Germany planned to send armored antiaircraft vehicles.

    “All of us have your back,” Austin told Ukraine, in remarks that followed his own trip to Kyiv.

    Senior defense officials from NATO and non-NATO countries attended the meeting, part of the new UKRAINE DEFENSE CONSULTATIVE GROUP. Some nations, such as Israel and Qatar, had representatives at the table, although they were not included on the official list of attendees. The inclusion of non-NATO countries such as Kenya, Tunisia and Japan was part of an effort to extend substantive and symbolic support for Ukraine beyond Europe and the alliance.

    “My trip to Kyiv reinforced my admiration for the way that the Ukrainian armed forces are deploying” the help they are getting, Austin said in his opening statement. “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win. And so does everyone here.”

    Milley was less definitive after reporters had left the room. “The next two, three, four weeks will shape the overall outcome of this fight,” he said.

    GIVEN the foregoing: My take is Putin has violated a “norm” against invading a neighbour’s sovereign territory. Putin must pay!!

    Putin and Lavrov could keep babbling about their nuclear arsenal, ad nauseam!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: