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When Recognition Is Reckless

Russia is not the only country irresponsibly offering diplomatic stamps of approval.

By , a political analyst and policy fellow at the Century Foundation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured at a meeting in Novo-Ogarevo, Russia on Aug. 7, 2007.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured at a meeting in Novo-Ogarevo, Russia on Aug. 7, 2007.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured at a meeting in Novo-Ogarevo, Russia on Aug. 7, 2007. DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia pounced on Ukraine even as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rambling speech denying Ukraine’s sovereignty was still reverberating. History will recall that the symbolic trigger for the devastating war was not a bullet but a single word at the end of his tirade, symbolizing decades of Russia’s post-Cold War grievances: recognition.

Why did Putin bother recognizing the independence of the breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region instead of just sweeping in, as he clearly planned to do? It is becoming futile to try to guess Putin’s motives, but his misuse of diplomatic recognition symbolizes how international norms are being twisted and manipulated—and how badly the international structure itself is sagging.

Diplomatic recognition is intended as a welcoming act among states, opening the door to travel, trade relations, and multilateral clubs; it brings countries together. Last week, Putin used recognition cynically to tear a country apart. However, in recent decades, other power brokers have applied diplomatic recognition norms chaotically and manipulatively as well, in ways that undermine the meaning of the act—and the international system.

Russia pounced on Ukraine even as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rambling speech denying Ukraine’s sovereignty was still reverberating. History will recall that the symbolic trigger for the devastating war was not a bullet but a single word at the end of his tirade, symbolizing decades of Russia’s post-Cold War grievances: recognition.

Why did Putin bother recognizing the independence of the breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region instead of just sweeping in, as he clearly planned to do? It is becoming futile to try to guess Putin’s motives, but his misuse of diplomatic recognition symbolizes how international norms are being twisted and manipulated—and how badly the international structure itself is sagging.

Diplomatic recognition is intended as a welcoming act among states, opening the door to travel, trade relations, and multilateral clubs; it brings countries together. Last week, Putin used recognition cynically to tear a country apart. However, in recent decades, other power brokers have applied diplomatic recognition norms chaotically and manipulatively as well, in ways that undermine the meaning of the act—and the international system.

One symptom of the problem is the fact that recognition of sovereignty is not always congruent with actual, meaningful sovereignty. Palestine has been recognized as a state by more than 135 members of the United Nations and has held status in the body as a “nonmember observer state” since 2012 but has hardly any genuine sovereign powers. The Israeli army openly controls a large portion of the would-be state’s territory and enters the remaining areas at will while restricting the movement of all Palestinians. Palestine does not control its external borders; its economy is heavily constrained by Israel based on the 1994 Paris Protocol agreement; and the partial nature of recognition, despite the U.N. upgrade, means Palestine cannot freely conduct foreign relations.

Similarly, more than 100 U.N. member states have recognized Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008. Yet Kosovo’s foreign policy, a key element of sovereignty, remains circumscribed. For example, Serbia has conducted a relentless campaign of derecognition over the years with some success: At least 10 or, as Serbia asserts, up to 15 states have revoked recognition. Kosovo is also unable to join the United Nations, since Russia, backing Serbia, would block its membership through a veto at the Security Council.

One root source of the problem is the range of circumstances driving diplomatic recognition of sovereignty in the first place, alongside wavering international responses to wrongful recognition.

Putin has reportedly been obsessed with the Kosovo war, which he viewed as a Western imperial military invasion into Russia’s sphere of influence.

In Kosovo, the international community was cautious about recognizing independence. Even after the overpowering U.S.-led NATO air war in 1999 drove Serb forces out, the U.N. Security Council resolution ending the campaign actually reinforced Serbia’s territorial integrity and supported only an ill-defined self-governance for Kosovo, whose status was to be determined in the future. For years, the international community sought “earned sovereignty,” before acknowledging Kosovo’s declaration in 2008.

Putin has reportedly been obsessed with the Kosovo war, which he viewed as a Western imperial military invasion into Russia’s sphere of influence. At the time, Russia sent troops to a Pristina airport intending to establish a Russian-controlled zone in Kosovo. In response, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark rushed in troops to stop them, bringing the two sides closer than ever to direct confrontation.

Putin was the head of Russia’s Security Council at the time. The accession of Montenegro and then North Macedonia to NATO in 2017 and 2020, respectively, surely tore the Balkan wound open again, as Putin intoned bitterly in his Monday speech ahead of the Ukraine invasion. Many believe he has been seeking vengeance rather than any consistency in foreign policy: Putin would like to quash Kosovo’s sovereignty while supporting secession in Crimea and now Donetsk and Luhansk, not to mention the two breakaway regions from Georgia that Russia recognized in 2008.

Even the United States issued a spate of reckless recognitions just over the last few years. In late 2020, in the context of normalization between Morocco and Israel, former U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a disputed region under Moroccan military occupation since 1975. Trump’s move was deeply destabilizing, sparking renewed violence with neighboring Algeria. Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton argued that the move also unraveled decades of U.S. diplomacy to resolve the problem.

In 2019, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel grabbed from Syria during the war in 1967. That recognition was another gross dismissal of the international prohibition on territorial conquest and protection of sovereign integrity, again dashing hopes for a future diplomatic resolution there, however remote it may be at present. And that move came after Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, yet another symbolic recognition of Israeli annexation, this time of East Jerusalem.

Those recognitions highlight the elephant in the room—stalwart U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Even Israeli twitteratis have noted the similarities between Putin’s argument that Ukraine belongs to Russia historically—and that Ukraine’s nationality and independence are fake—to nearly identical claims made by some elements of the Israeli government about the Palestinians.

Yet for decades, the U.S. government has murmured criticisms of Israeli settlements while providing the overwhelming economic and political cover that enables, and deepens, the occupation. In a sign that recognition is all about political positioning, Putin’s government found time to deny Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, even while it was busy trying to destroy Ukraine last Thursday—possibly in response to an Israeli statement of support for Ukraine

De facto global tolerance of other wrongful recognitions has surely emboldened Putin as well.

In Cyprus, the international community has effectively tolerated the nearly 50-year Turkish occupation of part of the island of Cyprus, which began as a military invasion in 1974. In 1983, Turkey also recognized the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which the international community deems illegitimate. To be sure, the U.N. has worked for decades to negotiate a resolution to the Cyprus conflict and has maintained forms of embargoes against the north. But Turkey has only deepened its foothold in Cyprus in recent years, and Putin surely knows why: Turkey is a NATO member and a strategic partner with its own leverage—in other words, realpolitik has pushed Cyprus off the global agenda.

Diplomatic recognition is intended to bring countries together. Putin used it cynically to tear a country apart.

In 2008, Russia conducted its practice round for the present. After a brief but severe war against Georgia, Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war and recognition demonstrated Putin’s disregard for Georgian sovereignty and tested the international response to his perversion of the symbols of the international order. Yet since 2008, despite the fact that Russia has been inching steadily into Georgia from those territories, there have been no real consequences for Moscow.

For months ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, the world was scrambling to guess what Putin wanted. But Putin may well have been tallying the erosion and inconsistencies of international norms—to be sure, with his contribution—and concluding that the vaunted international system wouldn’t stop him.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is the now the single greatest blow to the postwar international order since World War II, and it started by Putin making a mockery of the concept of sovereignty. But simmering protracted conflicts weaken those norms as well; the United States and its Western allies need to identify and rectify their own inconsistencies regarding the meaning and recognition of sovereignty in the cases above—or work harder to resolve them—for their own positions to have real force. The principles of the international system have helped deter war over the decades and desperately need to be fortified.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst and policy fellow at The Century Foundation. She has advised political campaigns in Israel, the Balkans, and other countries. Twitter: @dahliasc

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