Reports that Vladimir Putin lives in a different world are wrong. If anything, the international community might soon be living in a new brave world, created by Putin. Recent events—in particular the Western response to the Crimea invasion—show that Putin might understand the world order and the nature of political systems better than most analysts and policymakers.
But let’s start from afar. The abbreviated Max Weber definition of a state as an entity with a “monopoly on violence” unexpectedly became very relevant to Ukrainian events. In today’s Western, law-abiding, strictly regulated world, we tend to think of the “monopoly on violence” as a metaphor. Who, after all, is seriously challenging the state in terms of its control over the military or the police?
However, Ukrainian events have demonstrated that control of violence is still at the very essence of the state. Remember that it was only after direct clashes with the police, after the first victims appeared, and after the police started joining the protestors that real regime change began in Ukraine. Only when the first victims emerged did the E.U. and the U.S. finally threaten Yanukovich with sanctions, which led to the split within his elites and Yanukovich’s flight to Russia. The Ukrainian story was about who—the people or the ruler—was stronger.
Ultimately, though, the existence of a given world order is also based upon who is there to defend the existence of such an order. The post–World War II international system (in particular, the Helsinki Accords of 1975) effectively established the inviolability of state borders. Since then, no permanent U.N. Security Council member (so-called “P5”) has dared challenge the territorial integrity of another country with a goal to annex part of its territory. (The 2008 Georgian-Russian war led to emergence of two de jure independent states: South Ossetia and Abkhazia.) So the Crimean case is indeed quite unique: a P5 power annexing a territory recognized by the entire international community. Though the practice was common prior to World War II—for example, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which divided eastern European territories into Nazi and Soviet "spheres of influence"—Putin is leading the first attempt in the twenty-first century. And the surprising discovery of the past few weeks is that there are few who are willing or able to stop him.
Although we have recently heard many fearsome statements from President Obama and the E.U. leaders, the actual sanctions (issued two and half weeks after the beginning of Crimea adventure) leave much to be desired. The “unprecedented measures” against Russia turned out to be relatively feeble prohibitions against several random and not very influential Russian officials—definitely not the primary decision-makers in the Crimea’s story. The real heroes of the occasion stayed (even symbolically) unpunished. Moreover, not only has Russia’s maintained its G8 membership, but, recently, G8 representatives have been distancing themselves from earlier statements regarding suspension of Russia’s membership. Loud talk and a small stick, indeed.
Moreover, the “acceptance” of Putin’s actions among the Western community appears to be on the rise. A Bloomberg View editorial, for example, announced that “the U.S. and EU aren't going to fight to defend what remains of Ukraine. They aren't bound by treaty to do so, and their interests (not to mention their electorates) argue against it.” (In fact, the U.S. has at least moral obligations to defend Ukraine under 1994 Budapest Memorandum.) Analyst John Walcott went as far as to suggest that “there is no question anymore, Ukraine (not Crimea, but Ukraine overall) is gone” on Bloomberg News this past weekend. Even the Baltics states that are often viewed as the fiercest opponents of Russia’s policies in Ukraine have shown some restraint. Yesterday, the Latvian minister of finance asked the E.U. to provide compensation to the European Union countries that will suffer economically from sanctioning Russia.
Altogether, this means that Putin is reading the situation correctly: The monopoly on violence rules the international order. There is simply no one to stop Putin from taking what he wants.
Maria Snegovaya is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University, and a columnist at Vedomosti.