Country Risk

Ukraine futures: borders, boundaries and sovereignty challenges

13 March 2014
Distribution of Russian and Ukrainian land assets

Putin's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and his attempt to annex Crimea is another stark reminder that the dimensions of the international system are not static and nor are they accepted by all for all time. Borders, boundaries and maps change and, more importantly for security and intelligence communities, are often the source of both 'grey areas' of shared or uncertainty sovereignty and rapidly escalating 'grave situations' that involve varying degrees and types of contested sovereignty.

Instability in Ukraine has its own distinct drivers and dynamics, but some of the same powerful forces that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent shadow 'war' in Crimea - historical ethnic or cultural-linguistic nationalism, changes in control or ownership of territory, geopolitical realities -a re combining with a range of other societal, political and security challenges to create uncertainty and competition over sovereignty and control of resources, territory, institutions and populations in states and regions throughout the world.

These include the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, the armed conflict in Syria, territorial disputes in Northeast Asia, and September's referendum on Scottish independence, but there are dozens of examples on every inhabited continent. The dimensions of the international system are in frequent flux and in some cases the status of our currently recognized borders, boundaries, and sovereignty arrangements exist in a situation in which actual control is uncertain or in effect held by multiple actors.

The continuing fragmentation of the Westphalian system does not necessitate carving up current states into their ethno-linguistic or politically/culturally aligned parts. Europe's frontiers have grown, not shrunk, and EU members now deal with different – but still difficult – issues associated with shared sovereignty and the free movement of people across boundaries that were once the focus of bloody conflicts.

Either way, the challenge for security, intelligence, and policy communities across the world will be how to anticipate where sovereignty challenges are most vulnerable to crisis; understand how these escalations may radiate out to affect regional or international security; and identify where, as is increasingly likely in Crimea, new dimensions will warrant new de facto or de jure maps.

(353 words)