Russia’s attack against Ukraine, a former Soviet state and now an independent state, is a challenge against the global norm of absolute self-restraint in resolving interstate disputes. Russia’s attack on Ukraine suggests two things: first, autocratic states assert their Westphalian rights to sovereignty as a reason for expansion through securitization. Second, this signals a shift in the norms of the international system. Russia has just given the West a challenge against the norm of strategic mutual restraint. Mutual restraint is a self-conscious decision by a state not to use force against another. Russia has shown that such a norm may not be exercised when the territorial defense is based on Westphalian rights.
The question is—how can a state then balance its security interests with cooperation? When the Russian Federation lost the Balkans to NATO, the former superpower lost states that form part of its bastion defense. Moscow feels naked against NATO and US aggression. NATO’s expansion towards much of the territory once occupied by Russia precipitates securitization. That explains why Russia, since 2000, has been developing what experts call a security bubble. It is well within the security interests of Russia, therefore, to place Ukraine within its ambit to create some distance between Russia and NATO.
What we are seeing now is a bifurcation that occurs before a significant change in the rules of the international system. While the West had what experts describe as kid’s glove handling of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, an attack against Ukraine serves as a tipping point, the constructed buffer area between Russia and the West. The question is—what will then be the change in the international system then? The West promotes cooperation. A state that defects this norm faces sanctions that target economic interdependencies as Western states are now doing. When a state defects from an alliance, it impinges on other states’ interests. Hence, every infraction pulls states into an uncanny situation where others are affected.
The follow-up question is telling: with states at risk themselves while sanctioning a state behaving irreverently; it will create the observation that such a situation or condition is acceptable given that it is not the aberrant state affected by defection. If this is so, then the stakes or risks of defection are, therefore, manageable. It is also observed that risks are distributed among stakeholders in every infraction.