Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been widely decried as a violation of that country’s territorial sovereignty. It also reeks of hypocrisy: Putin has long championed the principle of noninterference in countries’ internal affairs.
But this is only part of the story. While the invasion clearly violated Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, it also conformed with a very different understanding of sovereignty that Putin has advanced in recent years, one that animates far-right populism beyond the current conflict.
Putin is redefining sovereignty
For most people — including most national leaders — sovereignty has a clear meaning: Nations are legally equal in international affairs, their borders are inviolable and they have exclusive authority within these borders. Putin has been a vocal defender of this version of sovereignty.
But in recent years the Russian leader has characterized sovereignty in less familiar ways. Alongside conventional references to the concept, he has increasingly used the term as a metaphor for what he calls the “inner energy” of a people united by common values, beliefs and history.
When, for instance, Putin told the Russian Federal Assembly in 2014 that Russia must “remain a sovereign nation,” he did not simply mean that the country must defend itself against perceived foreign influences. He described a “truly” sovereign state, such as Russia, as one possessing the self-confidence and collective will to “achieve every goal.”
Putin argued that Russia’s sovereign ambitions should be based, in part, on a shared awareness of the “indivisibility and integrity” of Russia’s “thousand-year long history” and the “powerful spiritual unifying force” of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Without the inner force of this “true sovereignty,” he warned, Russia would “dissolve without a trace and lose our identity.”
Putin’s vision of sovereignty leaves no room for Ukraine to exist as a nation
Putin reprised these themes last week when he justified his invasion by claiming that Ukraine was not a “real” state. On Feb. 21, the day Putin recognized two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities and then ordered Russian troops there to “maintain peace,” he accused Ukrainian leaders of having “replaced the real cultural, economic and social interests of the people and Ukraine’s true sovereignty” with a corrupt and “corroded Ukrainian statehood.”
Since Ukraine lacks genuine sovereignty, as Putin has redefined the term, it apparently does not deserve the protections of legal sovereignty, including the right not to be invaded. According to that same logic, the very existence of an independent Ukraine has weakened Russia’s own unity and strength — its “sovereignty” — because of the historical connection between the two peoples. The current Ukrainian state, Putin complained last week, is built “on the negation of everything that united us.”
This is not simply a nationalist or irredentist claim to Russian ownership of Ukraine. As I explained in a recent article in International Organization, Putin’s redefinition of sovereignty has revived older understandings of the term, including the idea that sovereignty represents the animating spirit of a state — the power of the body politic itself. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, called sovereignty the “soul” of a political community, “giving life and motion to the whole body.”
Right-wing populists are embracing this new vision of sovereignty
Right-wing European populists have been talking about sovereignty in similar ways for the last decade. My research in the forthcoming issue of International Affairsshows how populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has, at least since 2014, been using the concept not just in its conventional sense, but also to denote the inner force of a confident, unified and notably Christian society. When Donald Trump was U.S. president, speaking at the United Nations and in Warsaw, he also described “sovereign” societies as those with “strong families and strong values” and “patriots” willing to “sacrifice” to uphold their “culture, faith and tradition,” or else face “decay, domination, and defeat.”
For Orbán, Trump and Putin, in other words, sovereignty is not just about strong borders, the right of nations to govern themselves, or their ability to resist outside influences. It is also a euphemism for the indomitable power of a society united by ethnicity, religion and race — and a strong leader. Societies lacking such unity are weak, degenerate and worthy of contempt. They may even deserve to be dominated.
The troubling implications of this new use of “sovereignty”
Such reinterpretations of sovereignty could be dismissed as mere rhetoric were it not for the concept’s importance in international politics. The right of countries to political independence and territorial integrity — the core legal protection of modern sovereignty — is hard enough to uphold even when there is widespread agreement on the meaning of the term.
Recasting it as a metaphor for societal power and purity risks making this task even harder. Worse, it may offer a license for powerful states to withhold sovereignty’s legal rights from other countries that, in their view, lack the attributes of “real” sovereignty.
There is more at stake in Russia’s invasion than the survival of Ukraine as an independent, democratic state. This is also a war over the definition of sovereignty itself.
Roland Paris (@Roland Paris) is professor of international affairs and director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an associate fellow of Chatham House.