Ukraine on Latin America’s Mind

RIO DE JANEIRO – Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a fait accompli, a done deal. The ensuing diplomatic ballet indicates that the West understands that it can do little to reverse the outcome. Western sanctions so far have not affected Russia’s real interests, and Russian President Vladimir Putin does not appear to be intimidated.

So the real issue now is whether Russia will push further and claim territory in eastern Ukraine, where a sizable number of Russian-speaking citizens, evidently spurred on by Kremlin operatives, wants to cut ties with the government in Kyiv. Can the West or the United Nations Security Council do anything if push comes to shove?

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Modern-day international relations are predicated on two interdependent principles: non-intervention and self-determination. Non-intervention makes sense only when the rights of kindred national minorities in neighboring countries are adequately protected. At the same time, a change in political borders to unite adjacent national communities may merely create new minority problems, as the revised boundary may bring in non-nationals. That is why the principle of self-determination is equally pertinent in such situations.

Latin America has experienced both the absence and the application of these principles since the region’s Iberian colonization. Following independence, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, most of the continent’s borders were the subject of bitter political conflict. More than six decades after the end of its monarchy, the majority of Brazil’s 10 international frontiers were still not agreed.

Since then, Latin America’s border disputes have been resolved either by war – for example, between Mexico and the United States, or among Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and others – or through negotiation. A long-standing quarrel between Peru and Ecuador led to two wars, before being settled with the help of Brazilian diplomacy. Other border disputes have been resolved through international arbitration, Brazil’s preferred route.

Today, not a single inch of Latin American borders is seriously disputed. Although some smaller issues remain unresolved, it is difficult to imagine these ever leading to conflict between Latin American countries (though Argentina does maintains its claim to the Falkland Islands, which remain under British sovereignty).

Many people in Latin America understand the potency of Russian feelings about Ukraine – Sergei Eisenstein’s film “The Battleship Potemkin” is a dramatic reminder of its cultural resonance. Nonetheless, the principle of non-intervention carries equal force, and the idea of emulating Russia’s violation of existing internationally recognized borders is anathema, owing to a deeply ingrained awareness that such incursions could destroy international agreements that were achieved only after much suffering.

Let us assume that Russia has a legitimate case for protecting Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine (or to facilitate their wish to join Russia). How, then, can we reconcile the principles of non-intervention and self-determination?

One approach might be to dodge the issue altogether, by taking a realist view and accepting the result as illegitimate but irreversible. Alternatively, one might simply recognize Russia’s territorial claim as having been legitimate from the outset. This is far from being a perfect solution, but it might be sufficient to draw a line under the dispute, and ensure that our most important principles of international relations remain intact.

Of course, acceding to Russia’s claim to Crimea might exacerbate the dilemma if the Kremlin’s ethno-territorial claims extend to eastern Ukraine (as increasingly appears to be the case), or, worse, to the Baltic States, where Estonia and Latvia have substantial Russophone minorities. In such cases, one must draw a red line and argue that appeals to “self-determination” are less clear-cut than they are in Crimea, and that the international community will not tolerate territorial changes to accommodate them.

One hopes that this will be the outcome once the posturing on all sides subsides. Nobody wants to go to war over Crimea, and one must hope that no reasonable statesman would ignore the fundamental tenets of international relations by seizing control of mainland Ukrainian territory. The cost to the invader would be enormous, and the collateral damage inflicted on the international system might be irreparable.