Putin’s triumph in Crimea: implications for international law

As the dust settles on the Ukraine crisis, we should ask how it might affect our understanding of international law. Various  theories of compliance with international law must contend with the fact that Russia violated international law and got away with it.

No one has ever argued that countries never violate international law. The argument is always that if they do, they incur a cost above and beyond the costs inherent in the activity that constitutes a violation. Violation of the law itself brings with it special harms to the violator. Is that the case with Russia?

1. Retaliation? The West imposed sanctions on Russia but by all accounts those sanctions were trivial.

2. Reputation? It is possible that Russia’s reputation has suffered. Will countries now be less willing to enter treaties with it? Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell. But Russia recently entered a Eurasian Economic Union. The other two members don’t seem bothered by Russia’s law violations. Nor does China. Or even Germany.

3. Utility losses? Many theories, if taken literally, suggest that Russian officials, perhaps Putin himself, must have overcome reluctance to violate norms that they have internalized because those norms are fair, or network or conformity effects or some such thing exist. Any evidence for this? No, but also hard to imagine how we would find any.

It is simpler to recognize that international legal norms outstripped the interests of countries, and so there was no incentive to uphold them.