Russia and Germany in Crimea: The Irony of History

Boaz Atzili

American University

Boaz Atzili is an Associate Professor at the School of International Service of American University in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT and a BA from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on territorial conflicts and peace, the politics of borders, and aspects of deterrence. He has published articles in journals such as International Security, Security Studies, International Studies Review, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Harvard International Review, and SAIS Review of International Affairs. Dr. Atzili’s dissertation won the American Political Science Association’s Kenneth N. Waltz prize for the best 2006 dissertation in the area of security studies; His book, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the Edger E. Furniss 2014 Award for the best first book in international security; and his paper “Accepting the Unacceptable: West Germany’s Shifting Territorial Concepts” (with Anne Kantel), won the A. Leroy Bennett Award for a paper presented at ISA Northeast, 2015.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

History sometimes likes to play games of irony, counting on our short memory. One such irony is revealed in the context of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In March 2014 Russian troops took de-facto control of Crimea, followed by a declaration of independence and a swift (and most likely rigged) referendum, in which about 95 percent of the population voted in favor of being annexed by Russia. Russia, following the “will of the people,” complied. Western countries, Germany included, refused to recognize the change in sovereignty, citing a long-held international norm about the inviolability of borders. Russia, in turn, vocally declared that it would not abide by this phony Western norm.

The principle of inviolability of borders, in fact, is not a Western norm. This norm is often called the norm of “territorial sovereignty,” though more accurately it should be called the border fixity norm. It is rooted in nineteenth century Latin America, from there it spread to the rest of the world after the Second World War. In Europe, this norm was institutionalized and codified by the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Most people remember the Helsinki Accords for the establishment of the CSCE (which later would turn into OSCE), and for the inclusion of human rights language, which later served as a platform for denouncing the communist rule in Eastern Europe. Yet, the Helsinki Accords were in fact a grand bargain in which the West insisted on the inclusion of human rights clauses in the accord, and the Soviet Union—yes, the Soviet Union—demanded that the principle of inviolability of borders will be included in the accords.

The Soviets insisted on this principle because its entire presence in Eastern Europe was built on a postwar set of borders that were still not quite stable. For one thing, a Western—and in particular West German—recognition of inviolability of borders would implicitly mean acknowledgment of the fact of East Germany. For another, such recognition would solidify the postwar borders of Poland and the Soviet Union. In the wake of the Second World War, the Soviet Union redrew the Eastern European borders. It annexed territory east of the Curzon Line in Poland and, in return, gave German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line to Poland. It was called “Stalin’s trap” because it forced Poland to keep its alliance with the Soviet Union so as to not stand by itself against a revisionist Germany.

Exactly for those reasons, West Germany was the main opposition to the inclusion of the principle of border inviolability in the Helsinki Accords. The Federal Republic already recognized its Eastern counterpart de-facto and had already signed the Warsaw and Moscow treaties, which acknowledged the Oder-Neisse as the eastern border of Germany. Yet the government of Helmut Schmidt still faced considerable domestic opposition to these agreements, and especially preferred to leave the door slightly opened for a future peaceful unification of the two Germanys. Schmidt eventually relented and West Germany signed the Helsinki Accords together with the rest of the European countries, the U.S., and Canada.

Now, however, the roles have been switched. It is Germany that stresses—and rightly so—the importance of inviolability of borders. It is Russia that dismisses this principle, arguing that it is a Western norm that is not binding on Russia. History, after all, likes irony.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.