Washington’s Inconsistent Stance on Territorial Integrity

U.S. officials scarcely miss any opportunity to denounce Russia for severing Crimea from Ukraine and then annexing the peninsula. Yet Washington’s own track record regarding respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries is inconsistent, to say the least. Critics have noted that the position the United States and its NATO allies adopted toward the issue of Kosovo is at sharp variance with the current denunciation of Moscow’s conduct in Crimea. Not only did NATO launch an air war against Serbia to detach one of its provinces in 1999, but it proceeded to encourage and defend Kosovo’s subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 from what had become a fully democratic Serbia. 

The insistence of U.S. officials that the Kosovo situation was unique and, therefore, did not set any precedent, barely passed the laugh test. Russia explicitly cited Western policy in Kosovo for its own actions in Georgia, detaching two of that country’s secessionist-minded territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, later in 2008. More recent efforts by staunch critics of Russia’s amputation of Crimea to argue that Western actions in Kosovo were entirely different are scarcely more credible than Washington’s original justifications. The reality is that the Kosovo, Georgia, and Crimea episodes were all acts of aggression.

Cyprus is another case that undermines Washington’s professed reverence for the territorial integrity of nations. NATO ally Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and proceeded to occupy the northern 37 percent of Cypriot territory. At the very least, the U.S. government looked the other way while its ally committed a blatant act of territorial theft. And a provocative new book, Kissinger and Cyprus: A Study in Lawlessness, by former Nixon Administration official Eugene Rossides, makes a solid case that the administration aided and abetted Ankara’s aggression. 

The Turkish government certainly has never paid a significant price for invading and partitioning its neighbor. Nor has it done so for later establishing a secessionist entity, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, in the occupied territory and bringing in tens of thousands of settlers from the Turkish mainland. 

It would be charitable to describe Washington’s response to these repeated violations of international law as anemic. Although an angry Congress imposed sanctions against Turkey following the invasion, the executive branch did everything possible to evade and undermine those restrictions. That was doubly true of subsequent administrations. There was not even an effort to exclude Turkey temporarily from its role in NATO. United States policy in the succeeding decades has been more critical of the victims of Ankara’s ongoing aggression than it has of Turkey’s conduct. Indeed, Washington’s primary goal has been to pressure the Cypriot government and public into signing an agreement that would accept the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in all but name and legitimize the continued presence of Turkish occupation troops in the north.

Given that record, it is difficult to regard the U.S. opposition to Russia’s actions in Crimea as based on sincere respect for international law. There appears to be a disturbing double standard. Washington certainly has not held itself or its allies to the behavioral standards that it demands of other countries.