Did Russia just do an about-face and embrace a core principle of the international order?
On Monday, it brokered a settlement to stop one former Soviet state, Azerbaijan, from forcibly taking more land claimed by another former Soviet state, Armenia, in a brutal war that began Sept. 27. Moscow even sent troops into the disputed area, known as Nagorno-Karabakh, to help keep the truce.
What makes the settlement interesting is that Russia, a country that used force twice in the past 12 years to change the borders of neighboring states, stood up to Azerbaijan’s aggression. This could be a moment to celebrate Moscow’s apparent respect for the sovereign equality of other countries even as it had practical reasons to intervene.
Among most member states of the United Nations, the prohibition against the use of force to change borders lies at the heart of the U.N. charter. Indeed that global norm accounts for the relative peace of the past seven decades compared with the destructive world wars of the early 20th century. In 2008, Russia violated the prohibition by taking Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. In 2014, it used force again to take over parts of Ukraine.
These actions under President Vladimir Putin have since hit Russia’s economy. The West has imposed sanctions and kept Mr. Putin at a diplomatic distance. The U.N. General Assembly criticized Russia for its belligerency against Ukraine. And Mr. Putin now faces domestic pressure to deal with COVID-19.
Azerbaijan, which has used its oil wealth to buy new weapons, attacked Armenian forces in September with Turkish support. Armenia, which is aligned with Russia, has since suffered heavy losses on the battlefield. Russia is also at odds with Turkey in a number of conflicts, such as in Libya and Syria. All of this may have led Moscow to find a way to end the use of brutal force by Azerbaijan in changing the current boundaries with Armenia.
Russia’s many reasons for peace along its borders may have awakened it to the global imperative for the inviolability of national borders. “Moscow has come to be regarded as aggressively imposing itself on the world,” writes Putin-watcher Anna Arutunyan in The Moscow Times.
Now, in ending another country’s aggression through diplomacy, it has projected the force of peace instead of the force of war. It may have decided that the world’s most important norm is worthwhile.