CCC Blog Posts - SelfDetermination

What Russia’s war Against Ukraine means for Self-Determination Claims Around the World

Published: 1 February 2024

By Lesley-Ann Daniels and Marc Sanjaume

The causes and consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine have been discussed extensively during the past two years and will likely keep international analysts busy for some time to come. There is a justified concern for the future of the liberal world order and the rules established in 1945. However, there has been less reflection on the long-term implications of this war for the international patterns of state creation and recognition. This is a notable omission given Russia’s use of territorial claims in the conflict. Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine an inflection point or business as usual for the world-wide politics of self-determination?

Legitimating invasion

In a recent academic article we argue why the war in Ukraine might bring about profound changes for self-determination patterns, including for irredentist and secessionist claims. Some see the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as a continuation of the expansionist-nationalist Russian strategy going back to the 2008 Georgian war. Certainly these events have been justified by Russia with the imperialistic claims and the nostalgic notion of a “historical Russia” that it has been developing over the last decades. However, we believe that we are seeing a new phase in how Russia legitimizes its actions. The evolution of discourses and strategies is clear. Increasingly, Vladimir Putin references the role of secessionism, sovereignty and self-determination and mobilizes the actions linked to these narratives and their justification. 

An evolving strategy for Ukraine

In the earlier Georgian and Crimean cases, ethnic kinship was central to Russia’s justification of its actions. Military operations were conducted in the name of protecting local populations (regarded as Russians by Moscow), as Russia provided support to de facto authorities in South Ossetia. Yet, already in the invasion of Crimea (2014) and more so in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, discourses around secessionism played a significant role. In both cases, annexations were preceded by sovereignty declarations. While in Crimea these events occurred almost simultaneously, in the 2022 invasion the strategy became more sophisticated. The Russian-sponsored secessions of Donetsk and Luhansk Republics occurred long before annexation. These de facto republics were recognised in February 2022,[1] in parallel to the invasion, and six months later were annexed, with local irredentist referendums providing a democratic veneer for the annexation. 

Furthermore, in both Crimea and Donbas, Russia harked back to the Kosovo precedent and put it at the heart of the justifications of its actions. In the words of the former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev: “Let’s put it mildly: our country doesn’t care about the G7’s non-recognition of the new borders [of Ukraine]; what matters is the true will of the people living there. Do not forget the Kosovo precedent, our Western friends, (…)”. In Crimea, Putin had already referred to the Kosovo case emphasizing the value of referendums: “while Prishtina declared its independence by parliamentary decision alone, in Crimea, people held a referendum and ‘its results were simply stunning’”.

Rules? What rules?

How exactly might these events influence self-determination dynamics around the world? Our intuitions point to at least five answers. First, the Russian approach to the conflict exploits the evolution of the 1945 liberal order into an interventionist order. Russian authorities justify recognition, self-determination rights, and annexations by seizing the interventionist language of a humanitarian and democratic choice rhetoric. Second, the Kosovo case has promoted a fragmented rather than a coordinated approach to self-determination claims among Great Powers. Third, the cynical and strategically offensive use of the concept of self-determination erodes its own meaning. The Crimean and Donbas referendums were at odds with any democratic standard in these kinds of votes. It represents a contemptuous use of the democratic principle in the hands of a Great Power to legitimise its own ethnic kinship aspirations. Fourth, Russian actions provide a recent example of the inconsistent and cynical use of remedialism – the claim that a people has the right to secede because of the harm it has endured - as a justification for self-determination. While Moscow supported Assad’s repression against the Kurdish minority in the Syrian War, it justified the recognition of de facto republics in Ukraine based on remedialist claims. Finally, for aspiring secessionists the international landscape might look even less hospitable after the Ukraine conflict than it was before it. Host-state consent to secession might become even more relevant and international recognition become more important but harder to achieve due to an erosion of its justifications. Credibility will probably be harder to achieve without host-state consent for those groups challenging their respective parent-states.

A postmodern turn

In a nutshell, the path to the current state of affairs from the perspective of self-determination movements was first opened by the Kosovo case more than a decade ago. Russia seized on the recognition of Kosovo as a precedent that could be used as a justification for its own imperialist ambitions. The current events seem to be a confirmation of this new shift towards realpolitik, where Russia exploits its military might to reorder boundaries in its immediate environment, while using the rhetoric of self-determination and sovereignty. The war in Ukraine might imply a solidification of a historical turn of the recognition patterns among Great Powers in a (post)liberal international order, where Russia takes advantage of its Great Power status to confer recognition and thus legitimacy on self-determination moves that it itself has manipulated, undermining the value of recognition. That is, the current situation has widened the gap between international practice and norms (UN Charter, Resolution 1514, Resolution 2625) that had always been contested but are now facing a peculiar postmodern paradox: the self-determination principle is eroded by remedial, liberal, democratic and humanitarian arguments simultaneously, hand-in-hand with violations of the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention driven by ethnic motivations.

[1] See: 


Lesley-Ann Daniels and Marc Sanjaume

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