03/09/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated May 09, 2014

Russia and the Erosion of Geo-Political Norms

The powderkeg that is the northern Black Sea right now has been thoroughly reported on recently. As it stands this week, Russia has situated reinforcement troops on the predominantly pro-Russian Crimean peninsula, which is under Ukrainian sovereignty. Furthermore, with Russia's highly valuable "Black Sea Fleet" located in Crimea, the peninsula holds significant value both culturally and logistically for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It's no surprise, then, that he has more or less ignored calls for de-escalation from the Western world, some may argue that he has in fact done the opposite and escalated the situation further. Thursday, amidst fresh sanctions from the U.S. restricting visas for Russians and Ukrainians found to be exacerbating the tension, it was announced that Crimea would be holding a referendum on whether or not to secede from Ukraine and officially become Russian territory. U.S. President Obama has declared this referendum outside of the realm of international legality; however, its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community shouldn't be of significance.

More alarming is the fact that it is happening at all, and that Russia appears to have the upper hand. Thursday's referendum starts a very slippery slope that ends with last-century showmanship and a renewed emphasis on "spheres of influence," things the United States cannot afford nor wants at this stage. While the past several weeks have brought about numerous developments, both positive and negative, the worst development is perhaps the notion that Russia is in the process of effectively deteriorating universal geo-political practices of the post-Cold War era, returning the international community to the much darker period of the second half of last century.

Since the Cold War, the U.S. has often acted in certain ways that made Russia's actions today possible. This was gradual, and in no way intentional -- as the newly crowned hegemony of the world, certainly the U.S. could not have anticipated events this far down the road. Almost immediately following the war, however, the U.S. failed to impose any sanctions following Russia's involvement in the War of Transnistria in Moldova, inadvertently setting a precedent for years to come. When pro-Transnistrian forces instigated armed conflict with Moldovan forces, Russia, who had promised to remain neutral, began supplementing the Transnistrian forces with its own troops.

Russia remained directly involved in the war for many years. It was a clear violation of Moldovan sovereignty, but a reminder that Russia was not over the dissolution of its vast empire just years prior. Similarly, the U.S. had limited responses to a Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008. Numerous options for repercussion were on the table for then-U.S. President George W. Bush, none of which were taken. Luckily, the conflict ended quickly and the damage could have easily been much worse.

In addition to ignoring Russia's brazen violations of other nation's sovereignty, the U.S. over the last two decades has itself violated other nation's sovereignties, setting a bad example for other countries to follow. Most notably are the exhausted examples of the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. An argument can be made for the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, where American intelligence provided credible evidence that the Taliban had been abetting al Qaeda, and were involved in orchestrating the terrorist attacks they carried out. Understandably, this was the hot spot for the "War on Terror," and there is near-universal agreement that at least some sort of intervention in the country was necessary.

The invasion of Iraq was another story entirely. It's still unclear exactly what the motive was, or how it was possible for intelligence on WMDs to be so inaccurate, but the U.S. was in clear violation of international sovereignty laws by leading the charge into the country. From today's standpoint, the U.S. arguably hurt Iraq, rather than helping the country and this will come back to haunt us should Iraq become the new hotbed for anti-American terrorist cells.

Culminating with recent events, it's easy to see from Russia's perspective the culture and climate of the decisions and inaction on the part of the U.S. By effectively ignoring Russia's violations of other country's sovereignty, and by violating those same laws of sovereignty itself, the U.S. established a foundation of disregard for international laws that demand respect for a country's borders and those that neighbor that country.

What if -- and this is a big if -- Russia's yearning for empire never went away? President Putin has acted over the last several weeks as though Ukraine is akin to one of his children. He has vociferously emphasized the legitimacy of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, has flooded Crimea with troops, while simultaneously using proxies to stage protests in virtually every Ukrainian city, and has now stopped selling natural gas to Ukraine at the agreed-upon discounted price in an effort to destabilize its economy.

These actions indicate a fixed mindset, not reactionary decisions based on exigent circumstances. Yes, the Soviet Union dissolved with the end of the Cold War, but in reality, Russia's stranglehold over the region never disappeared. Through its military clout and its vast wealth of natural resources, Russia has kept some semblance of control over most of the former Soviet states. In Ukraine specifically, the pro-Russian population is substantial, and has proven useful during election cycles in voting for candidates with particular warmth for Russia (Yanukovych's victory is a prime example). Russia may be more brazenly protecting these interests today, but Russia's shadow has long been cast over the region.

Perhaps more alarmingly, Russia seems to be pushing nationalism hard today, forcing the hand of sovereign states in the region. This is nothing new: one has to look no farther than the conflict in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the separation of Czechoslovakia around the same time to see that Europe -- particularly Eastern Europe -- has long been a complex melting pot of cultures and nationalities, often forced to live together in predetermined state boundaries.

From time to time there will be conflicts, and in some cases new states will be formed, however, Russia appears to be brazenly enforcing that idea Crimea. By pitting pro-Russian Ukrainians on the peninsula against their pro-E.U. counterparts, Russia is looking for a conflict to break out that would legitimize their necessity as a military force in the region. Setting the precedent of nationalism over state sovereignty is incredibly dangerous, and Russia should tread lightly. After all, it has grappled with its own nationalist conundrum -- the Chechnyan Republic -- on its southern border for centuries.

Along with nationalism, it appears somewhat obvious that Russia's actions amount to nothing more than simple warmongering. The buildup of troops in a neighboring state is rarely a sign of friendship, an indicator of good intentions, or a harbinger of peace. Putin has publicly stated that he wishes to protect the Russians living in Ukraine from any potential violence that may occur, and has used this to justify the Russian occupation of Crimea. At the same time, however, Putin has egregiously cracked down on protestors within his own country who happen to be protesting the escalating conflict, with police sometimes severely beating those who don't disperse. The irony demonstrates the flaws in Putin's line of thinking, as well as conveys his inability (or perhaps apathy) when it comes to justifying his actions.

While the situation in Ukraine is grave, there could also be significant repercussions across the globe. The shift towards nationalism from state sovereignty is not something that would exclusively impact Eastern Europe. For example, the Kurds in the Middle East have waged vicious wars against the governments in Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere for decades. In Turkey, the tension has dissipated substantially in recent months, although it appears to be heating up again in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Setting the precedent in Crimea that a region can simply vote their way out of the sovereignty of their parent state is incredibly dangerous, and likely something that the Kurds -- as well as the myriad other diverse ethnicities throughout the Middle East -- would seek for themselves.

Similarly, African nations have struggled since the end of colonial times to strike a balance between tribal laws and customs and the laws and customs of the state within which those tribes exist. This has never been easy, and will continue to pose a challenge to many states on the continent. And with so much of Africa being on the brink of instability, any pushback on the state system by tribes could be devastating for the continent. The erosion of state boundaries would create a chaotic, ungovernable environment, which would in turn stymie FDI and international support. Ten years of this type of broad lawlessness would cause irreparable damage to Africa's welfare and development.

The other outcome from the Ukrainian situation is the expansion of "spheres of influence," predominantly on the part of Russia. It's no secret that the U.S. does not want another Cold War to break out, and will probably not play into Putin's games. However, as Hillary Clinton mentioned last week, there are parallels to be seen between Putin's actions today and those of Hitler as he gradually occupied Austria, then Poland and Czechoslovakia. While the comparison may be extreme, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that Putin chooses to push farther into Ukraine past Crimea. And even if Russia does not militarily control certain parts of Eastern Europe, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that Putin finds alternative ways to exert control, whether it be through continued dependency on Russian natural resources, other trade, or something else entirely.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia's actions over the last week or so have indicated the collapse of arguably the most important geo-political development of the last century: contemporary collective security. Sadly, with Ukraine, Russia, the E.U., and the U.S. being in the news incessantly this past several weeks, NATO was scarcely mentioned at all. It's worth remembering that NATO was created in 1949 to stave off Russian influence in Europe, with the mutual understanding that collective security with everyone's best interest in mind was the strongest defense against unwanted belligerence. Today, NATO continues to be important, such as Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi's removal from back in 2011. Unfortunately, it does not appear that there will be retaliation from NATO in regards to Ukraine and what's even more disappointing is that the threat of collective security was not enough in this case to deter Putin from Crimean occupation. Once nations no longer see collective security as a credible deterrent, conflicts will become more prevalent as hawkish nations see no reason not to instigate a war.

Political science mastermind Francis Fukuyama published an essay in 1989, the year the Cold War effectively ended, titled The End of History?. The days of pervasive conflicts, neighboring countries battling one another for territory, and hegemonic states grappling for bigger empires than their enemies, had ended along with the Cold War, and the world could look forward to more widespread peace and smaller, pettier conflicts going forward. At the time, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable assumption, following the deadliest century the world had ever seen, and with the U.S. and western ideology emerging as the guiding thought for nations that wanted to prosper.

Perhaps now, though, we are entering a new era of history, one where we see nations such as Russia make a resurgent effort at expanding their influence. Without repercussions -- and it does not appear that the U.S. and the EU have the leverage, let alone the willingness to force repercussions on Russia -- the occupation of Crimea by Russian forces will send a message to rogue nations around the world that this type of behavior is tolerable. The United States has enjoyed hegemon status for over twenty years now, but one can only keep that status for so long. Between the never-ending conflict in Syria, the negotiations with Iran over nuclear power, the escalating roguish behavior of North Korea, and the numerous other high-priority issues President Obama must face head on today, the U.S. is stretched thin. When factoring in the domestic issues the U.S. is facing, it's clear that without the support of the international community, the U.S. (and, to be fair, it's European counterpart is in the same position) is simply unable to confront a powerhouse like Russia.

Now, the world must play the waiting game while Putin contemplates his next moves. The next several weeks will undoubtedly pose countless challenges to the western world, and could potentially alter the international political arena permanently. It would be misinformed to suggest that another Cold War is imminent, however, with Ukraine and Russia on their current trajectory, a chilling of geo-political amicability in the region is certainly likely. Let's hope things don't get too cold.