During the First Cold War, one of the most contentious issues in the political discussions between east and west was the question of borders between states. Everyone agreed that they should be inviolable. But there were two different interpretations of what inviolability meant.
For the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the answer was clear. It meant that, at any rate in Europe, borders were fixed for all time; and any suggestion that they might be changed was condemned as revanchism. They defended this position at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe as well as in the United Nations. For Nato, inviolability had a more limited meaning, namely that frontiers should not be changed by force: it left open the possibility that they could be changed by peaceful agreement.
The background to the dispute was Germany. Two German states had emerged from the Second World War and it was the aspiration of the Federal Republic of Germany, supported by all its Nato allies including the United Kingdom, that the people of the two states should one day be given the right to decide freely whether they wished to re-unify. Ironically, when the opportunity finally and unexpectedly arose, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the German Democratic Republic, it was Margaret Thatcher who tried to stop it happening: a politically inept and morally questionable policy which was one of the reasons that many Conservative MPs turned against her.
Two other principles of international law, or at any rate of international behaviour, which have always had a bearing on the issue of frontiers are those of territorial integrity and self-determination. Both have traditionally featured in the canon of United Nations resolutions, but it has never proved possible to identify any instrument for resolving the inherent contradiction between them. Do the Falkland Islands, for example, have the right to self-determination or is the territorial integrity of Argentina paramount? If Scotland can have a referendum on independence, why can’t Catalonia?
There have been occasions when international frontiers have changed peacefully. The re-unification of Germany in 1990 is the most striking example. But already in 1955 the state of Saarland, occupied by French forces at the end of the Second World War, had voted in a referendum against a special form of autonomy and in favour of incorporation into the Federal Republic. The dissolution of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics was also largely peaceful (with the exception of some casualties in Lithuania), as was the separation of Czechoslovakia in 1992. But for the most part it is war or violence which has been the architect of change.
The most egregious example in Europe was the war of Yugoslavian succession, which illustrated all the problems that can arise when an established order breaks down. The first of the former Yugoslavian republics to declare independence was Slovenia, a small homogeneous territory with very few people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Although the Federal Yugoslav government tried at first to stop it by force, the Slovenes quickly established a successful state. But the next to declare independence, Croatia, had a substantial Serb minority as did Bosnia, which had a Croat minority as well. All these minorities tried to establish their own mini-states and it took years of war until a settlement was reached. Even today it is unstable, with Kosovo’s status disputed and ethnic tensions in Macedonia.
What became apparent from the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that while international law is clear on issues like aggression and the treatment of civilians, it provides no guidance on the right to independence or frontiers. If Bosnia has the right to secede from Yugoslavia, why shouldn’t the Republika Srpska have the right to secede from Bosnia? If Kosovo can secede from Serbia, then why shouldn’t its Serb-speaking areas not have the right to secede from Kosovo?
Before Ukraine became independent in 1991 it had been a Soviet Socialist Republic, albeit one which, like Belarus, was a member of the United Nations. It enjoyed a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920, but for most of the preceding centuries it had been part of either the Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires. Its borders had shifted over time, usually as a result of post-war settlements. At the end of World War 2, for example, it acquired a chunk of what had previously been Poland, including the city of Lviv. In 1954, President Khruschev arbitrarily moved Crimea, which had previously been part of the Russian Federation, to Ukraine. Its inhabitants, many of whom were not Slavs but Tatars, were not consulted.
There is nothing inherently wicked about Russia wanting to change Ukraine’s borders. Plenty of states have territorial claims against one another: the Republic of Ireland until 1998 claimed sovereignty over part of the United Kingdom. But what Russia has failed to do is to launch any political process for doing so. Rather it has simply used force, ignoring its commitment under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity based on its existing borders. Whether the people of Crimea or of the oblasts of Lukhansk and Donetsk would prefer to belong to Russia than to Ukraine has never been tested democratically (the referenda organised under Russian military occupation were just shams). Nato countries should therefore stick to the position they defended successfully during the First Cold War. Yes, borders can be changed: but only peacefully and by agreement.
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