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Crimea or the Future of the Liberal World Order



If the 20th century was about an ideological fight between market-economy versus Communism, the 21st could very much be about liberal democracy versus imperialism. This could be the very lesson of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Power politics is – even though it has never disappeared – now a reality that the EU and the U.S. have to accept and re-learn to play.

The main powers of the current global order can be classified into three groups: Euro-Atlantic community, the “R” and “C” of BRICS, and the rest. So far, the fraught has been between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia-China (even though Russia and China’s behaviors have to be differentiated and shall not be assimilated for various reasons).

Due to geographic reasons, Europe has been more entangled with Russia and the U.S. with China. But in recent years, the U.S. and Europe have been readjusting their priorities considering the shifting world order. The U.S. under Obama, which has focused on “pivoting” to Asia and “reseting” with Russia, is once again focusing on European politics.

In the case of Europe, Russia has always been a priority, which was not the case of Asia until recently. Russia is one of the largest trading partners of the EU and its member states, such as Germany. However, in recent years, the EU has worked on addressing this strategic hole by developing “strategic partnership,” signing agreements with some Asian countries, and developing a policy vis-à-vis Asian powers, especially with China and India.



Since the invasion of Crimea, the EU has been unable to properly address and punish Russia. The division among EU member states on agreeing on eventual sanctions is affecting the credibility of the union. The European sanctions consist in first, agreeing on a list of Russians and Crimeans to target; and second, on freezing their assets and visas. Not only can member states not agree on the list and severity of the sanctions, but the ambassadors at the Political and Security Committee of the Union (PSC) are not failing to do so.

In terms of member states, Spain and Italy are not in favor of tough sanctions and only advocate for a limited list of people. Meanwhile Britain, Sweden and the Nordic countries are pushing for tough sanctions and want to go after people in Moscow. In France, a close ally of Russia in defense procurement, Paris has remained unclear and voiceless. Germany was left to lead the European pack. With its long-time Ostpolitik as the backbone of German’s Russian policy, which believes dialogue with Russia will lead to an eventual rapprochement, Chancellor Merkel has been extremely critical in her latest address talking of “threat to us [Union and Germany],” lawlessness and aggression. Among all EU member states, Germany is the one that has the most lose from severe economic sanction as both states share deep trade, economic, financial and energy relations.

Photograph: Pool via Reuters

Photograph: Pool via Reuters

Across the pond, the U.S. has threatened to use sanctions against Russia, but Obama and Kerry are still hopeful for a diplomatic solution. However, the latest diplomatic talks between John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, taking place in London on Friday, March 14, ended without an agreement. This is leaving the Obama administration in a wait-and-see mode until the release of the results of Sunday’s referendum.

The referendum on Sunday, March 16, in Crimea was more than just about the political status of Crimea — it was about the survival of the rules, principles and values embedded into contemporary international laws and promoted by the West throughout the 20th century. Many have compared Kosovo and Crimea in term of disagreement over independence of regions from their host state. In the case of Kosovo, the U.S. favored the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, while Russia and some EU member states opposed it. The rationale was that a region cannot secede and call independently for its independence and sovereignty.

However, in the case of Kosovo, the International Court of Justice claimed in its 2010 report that the autonomous declaration of independence of Kosovo did not violate international law. In the case of Crimea, Russia invaded a sovereign state, Ukraine, deployed Russian troops in Crimea in the name of protection of Russian speaking population. Since February, Russia has blocked all types of democratic processes and advocated for the implementation of a referendum held on March 16, 2014, asking two simple questions: “Are you in favor of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as part of the Russian Federation?” or “Are you in favor of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?” These questions do not offer a third option, which would maintain Crimea’s current status of autonomy from the Ukrainian government. Ultimately, secession is one aspect, but the problem is about the form as illustrated by the cases in Kosovo and Crimea. Should secession be implemented after a state invades another region and implement a bias referendum? Or, should secession be accepted after a region uses international law? These are two very different models of state-secession, and could impact the concept of state-sovereignty and global politics throughout the 21st century.

Territorial disputes have always existed and have been at the heart of global politics, even prior the creation of sovereign states in 1648. Most territorial disputes have been the main causes of war and invasions throughout human history. The EU felt that after the end of the Cold War, its greatest threat to its security would not be about territorial protection, but more about promoting peace and stability in its neighborhood. In this young 21st century, Russia and China have been trying to extend their sphere of influence and regained perceived lost territories. In Europe, Russia is working on its Eurasia Union and retaking territories and states before they fall under the sticky networks of Euro-Atlantic institutions. This was the case of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine after an eventual trade agreement with the EU in 2013.

Meanwhile, in Asia, China has worked on extending its territory and influence by challenging the U.S. in Taiwan and Japan over disputed territories in the East China Sea. So far, international institutions, like the U.N., have been useless for several reasons. First, both China and Russia are P5 members of the Security Council. For instance, on March 15, 2014, the U.N. Security Council failed to adopt a draft resolution calling for countries not to recognize the results of the referendum in Crimea. This was vetoed by Russia and China abstained. Second, it appears that the West has been consumed by their domestic crises — their fiscal, economic and societal system —making them less inclined to be active in international affairs. Third, the inward looking West, caused by the great crisis, has been frail in defending the 20th century rules of the game fearing serious consequences and drawbacks from Russia and China.

The Russian invasion of Crimea on the centennial anniversary of World War I underscored the creation of a new world order. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, historian Andrey Zubov, argued that “looking at revolution [in Ukraine] means looking at the spectre of Revolution in Russia, too. In that sense, the fight for Crimea is not just the fight for a piece of land, it’s the fight between two world views.” Crimea is indeed about the future of the liberal world order in this coming century and should be addressed as such by the members of the Euro-Atlantic community.



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.