A year ago, Russia occupied Crimea, staged a disputed referendum about seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, and annexed it to its territory. In postwar history, the annexation of a part of a sovereign country’s territory to the aggressor state has no precedent. There have been several occupations, invasions and secessions since 1945. But until a year ago no part of sovereign state was forcibly acquired by another state and made part of its sovereign territory.

On the one year anniversary of what has arguably been one of the most aggressive acts in interstate relations in postwar history, it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the meaning and the value of territorial integrity of sovereign states. Unfortunately, territorial integrity, this constitutive norm of postwar international law, has been utterly neglected by political theorists or international law scholars. No scholar has in recent years analyzed its meaning and function in international relations and defended the role it plays in world order. It certainly has a lot to do with the fact that human rights have taken center stage, in theory and in world politics. Also, many liberal thinkers and theorists of globalization have long condemned state borders as obsolete. And there is a nagging historical fact that most existing state borders were created arbitrarily and do not reflect boundaries of ethnic or national groups.

Territorial integrity is, however, one of the most fundamental norms of modern international law, granting states full control over their territory and protection against foreign invasion. Together with the prohibition of the threat or use of force, it is a constitutive feature of postwar international order, which was created with one overarching purpose — the maintenance of peace. The most important meaning of territorial integrity is that it prohibits invasion, occupation, military attack, blockade of a part of the territory by a foreign power, and unsolicited presence of foreign military forces aimed at interference in internal affairs. It proscribes forcible and unlawful change of borders. The annexation of a part of a sovereign state by another state with the use of military force represents an utmost degree of violation of territorial integrity.

Defined in this way, territorial integrity of sovereign states is a revolutionary historical achievement of postwar international law, no less significant than human rights.

To be sure, territoriality had been the feature of most historical forms of states. In the Westphalian system, territoriality has become a defining feature of absolute sovereignty — rulers had an absolute right to rule over territories which they considered to be their property. Territory had a crucial meaning for wealth and security of states and territorial expansion dominated foreign policy goals for much of history. In fact, most wars in the history were caused by territorial conflicts. The revision of borders was almost always their outcome. The borders of polities changed not only through war, conquest, or colonization, but also through marriage or contract. All these ways were essentially legal (and legitimate) methods of changing boundaries and expanding territories. Colonization and conquest were legal methods of territorial expansion and border revision until the second half of the 20th century. The important point is that in the past, territory had paramount economic and symbolic meaning, the stability of its borders could not be taken for granted, and borders could be legally changed by force.

A paradigmatic change occurred after WWII. Based on the insight that territorial disputes are a major cause of armed conflict and bear on the frequency and intensity of war, a broad consensus emerged among nations that the prohibition of the use of force, territorial integrity of states, and inviolability and stability of borders must become fundamental principles of a new world order, as they are crucially instrumental to peaceful and cooperative relations among nations. To be sure, the legalization of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders has to be linked to the principle of national ownership of natural resources which was introduced to prevent colonial dispossession of natural resources. The emphasis on values such as political independence, domestic autonomy, and sovereign equality has certainly contributed to the acceptance of the norm of territorial integrity.

Territorial integrity has become codified in many documents constitutive of modern international law. The 1945 London Charter establishing the jurisdiction of the International Military Tribunal and procedures of Nuremberg trials defined war of aggression as an international crime against peace. The UN Charter of 1945 affirmed states’ obligation not to use force against territorial integrity and political independence. Many regional organizations (Arab League, Organization of African Unity (now African Union), and the Organization of American States) contain provisions in their constitutive documents which define and protect territorial integrity of their member states.

Territorial integrity has become firmly established and widely accepted norm of international law. It involves, most importantly, respect for the proscription of the use of force to alter interstate boundaries. Besides the emphasis on inviolability of borders through force it also involves a widely shared respect for already established and existing borders, support for their stabilization, and opposition to irredentism, especially to attempts to regain territory on the basis of historical claims.

The opposition to border revisionism and irredentism is usually forgotten, especially by political theorists defending right to self-determination and conceptions moral territorial rights which contradict the system of territorial rights of currently existing states. That such a broad support has existed can be documented, for example, by the process of decolonization in which colonial territories and administrative boundaries set by colonizing powers became the frame of reference for emerging states claiming their right of self-determination. (The decolonization respected the principle of uti possidetis juris which provides that newly formed states accept the boundaries inherited from the previous governing power, and this principle trumped aspiration to self-determination of ethnic groups.)

The aversion to border revisionism can also be demonstrated by looking at the history of territorial conflicts in the second half of the 20th century and at processes of their resolution in which the majority of involved actors always displayed opposition to the revision of state borders. Only a handful of conflicts in the second half of the 20th century resulted in change of existing borders, i.e. the occupation of Northern Cyprus, territories occupied by Israel, the creation of Bangladesh, and the annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco. In the aftermath of the dissolution of Soviet bloc, existing internal borders have become point of reference in the creation of successor states replacing Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia.

The emphasis on the stability of existing borders certainly has a lot to do with the fact that land has lost its paramount economic and symbolic value. It has to do with the costs of territorial expansion or with costs and dangers of secessionism. Stable and uncontested boundaries minimize risks of conflict and are a condition of peaceful and cooperative horizontal relations among states and of trade. They enable rational politics aimed at modernization, development and reforms required by changing circumstances. The aversion to border revisionism, thus, has a number of practical and instrumental reasons — which, sadly, are usually considered unworthy of support in contemporary normative political inquiry.

Russia’s Despect for Territorial Integrity

At the end of WWII, the Allied Powers demonstrated strong support for territorial integrity. They did not claim territories of defeated powers. (They did obtain some UN Trust Territories that were former colonies of Japan or Italy and they committed to bringing them to independence.) The Soviet Union, however, did not unambiguously accept this respect for territorial integrity. It absorbed the Baltic states, parts of Poland, Germany, Finland, Rumania, the southern part of Japan’s Sakhalin Island and Kurile Islands.

After the dissolution of Soviet Union, the successor states accepted the already existing boundaries. The newly established Commonwealth of Independent states declared support for the principle of territorial integrity in its foundational documents. Soon after the end of Soviet Union, however, Russia began to renew its dominance and hegemony in the territory of former Soviet Union, which it designated as a realm of “vital and exclusive Russian interests.” It started pursuing a neocolonial model of integration in this newly defined Lebensraum. The integration of former Soviet Republics into Russian sphere of influence involved the commitment to protect Russian minorities in foreign territories with all available means, the creation of common security system involving military bases on neighbors’ territories, coordination of foreign policy, monetary and customs unions, debt for natural resources swaps and more. Recently, Russian neo-imperialism has been buttressed by the anti-liberal and anti-democratic ideology of Eurasianism and the project of Eurasian Union which declares as one of its goals to eliminate anti-Russian, i.e. liberal and democratic, values from the realm of its interests.

The violation of territorial integrity and permanent destabilization of existing borders represents one of the key strategies of Russian imperial domination and method of asserting influence. Notable cases in point include the regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria – and soon probably also Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Similar pattern of emergence can be traced in these so called “frozen conflict zones.” Russia intervenes under the pretext of protecting Russian minorities, promotes the emergence of separatist movements, sends military troops, and reinforces conflict between separatist and governments. In the end, pseudo-autonomous political entities with puppet regimes loyal to Moscow are created without clear international status and with contested boundaries which came into being as a result of a flagrant violation of territorial integrity of predecessor sovereign states.

Zones of frozen conflict with contested borders serve well Russian interests. How? Instable and contested boundaries and unresolved territorial conflicts prevent states from having independent relations with other states or international organizations beyond Russian influence. Territorial claims to lost territory create conditions for a specific kind of existential and emotional identity politics focused on historical injustice, demonization of the enemy, reclaiming homeland, and fostering national identity. In such a politics, no space is left for social and political reforms and cooperative horizontal relations.

Russia understands too well the meaning and the importance of territorial integrity and stable borders for autonomous politics and independent international relations, and the success of social and economic reforms. That is why the destabilization of borders and violation of territorial integrity are most important strategies of its neo-imperial domination.

Why does the rest of the world seem so unwilling to enforce the compliance with the norm in the case of Ukraine? There have been much speculation about why there is such relatively lax insistence on territorial integrity of Ukraine. The fear of the escalation of the conflict with Russia is often named as the primary reason. It might as well be the case that liberal, globalized, and open societies have forgotten that territorial integrity and stable borders are a condition of possibility of their openness, globalization, free flow of the people and goods, and rational reformist politics. Now, when it has become evident that Russia has given up its potentially historic role of becoming one of the responsible superpowers that together with others promotes peace, human rights, trade and cooperative relations among equal sovereign states, it is an even bigger challenge for the rest of the world to protect this constitutive norm of international law.

My modest proposal: we should simply start by recognizing the meaning, the role, and the function of territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders for our own security and welfare — and for peace and freedom of others. Dusting off definitions from countless documents of international law recognizing the use of force and violation of territorial integrity as destructive and aggressive crimes threatening the world peace might well be the very first important step.