Flexible Sovereignty as applied by Ukraine

Friday, 22. August 2014     1 comment(s)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

The Ukrainian state’s actions have as its goal to use the concept of ‘flexible sovereignty’ to in the long-term gain a broader sovereignty.

Ukraine has adopted a new strategic approach to maintaining state sovereignty in the long-run: Flexible sovereignty. This flexible sovereignty approach was most recently exemplified by Ukraine announcing that it would not interfere with parts of the Russian convoy of white-painted trucks that entered Ukrainian territory, and announcing that it thus wanted to avoid provocative actions.

The idea that a state would allow another state to enter its territory and act in aggressive and hostile ways is by no means unique to human history. However, states that have allowed such behavior have usually been unable to realistically prevent such hostile actions. The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia stands as regionally relevant example; while hundreds of citizens of Czechoslovakia were injured, there was limited resistance against the Soviet-led military.

What makes the Ukrainian approach different is that it could stop or destroy the column of trucks, but that as part of an overall strategy, it has chosen not to. The Ukrainian political and military leadership clearly see that a small tactical victory (stopping or destroying the convoy) would be likely to result in a larger political and military setback in the form of a larger open invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine by Russia. This could, in turn, lay to ground for a new frozen conflict – causing Ukraine to more permanently lose sovereignty.

How does this flexible sovereignty approach fit into the notions of state sovereignty in international relations?

In modern international relations the concept of sovereignty is most frequently seen to have emerged both as a byproduct and a core part of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. While this is historically inaccurate, it serves as a convenient marker for a period during which states with defined borders and separated domestic and foreign politics were emerging as a fundamental actor in European politics. Hence, one way to think about sovereignty in international relations is through the lens of Westphalian sovereignty, under which states can themselves determine how domestic politics and affairs (including religion) would be conducted.

In addition to Westphalian sovereignty, Stephen Krasner has identified three other subtypes of sovereignty: legal, domestic, and interdependence sovereignty. Domestic sovereignty is concerned with the ability of a state to legitimately manage its internal affairs, including maintaining the Weberian monopoly of violence. Legal sovereignty refers to whether the state in question is recognized by other actors (primarily states) in international politics. Interdependence sovereignty concerns the ability of states to intercept or materially divert cross-border, whether they are material or immaterial.

Of these four types of sovereignty, the Ukrainian state enjoys legal sovereignty, while its domestic and Westphalian sovereignties are severely challenged. Expecting strong interdependence sovereignty under these circumstances is perhaps unrealistic.

What is different, then, with the concept of ‘flexible sovereignty’ and how does it fit in with the four sub-types of sovereignty outlined above?

In the case of Ukraine, the government is actively choosing to allow actions which result in a short-term weakening of domestic and Westphalian sovereignty or at least in the public perception thereof, in order to improve the odds of regaining a more stable longer-lasting domestic and Westphalian sovereignty. By showing flexibility the Ukrainian military has gained time to train and equip units that have begun the process of reestablishing domestic sovereignty, while for now avoiding a more extensive war against Russia.

As argued by Stephen Krasner, the potential consequences of actions rather than strictly normative positions are a strong motivating force for leaders when sovereignty is violated. The Ukrainian state’s actions have as its goal to use the concept of ‘flexible sovereignty’ to in the long-term gain a broader sovereignty. In the meantime, however, there are some potential risks with the flexible sovereignty strategy, namely a creeping Finlandization. While Finlandization was primarily a means to an end, it frequently became an end to itself, thus making it conceptually different from flexible sovereignty. For now, it looks unlikely that the current Ukrainian government would fall into this trap.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

9.9.2014, Ganesan Thangarajesh

I salute author for good piece of work. When sovereignty is violated by another one, it is difficult to remain silent. Once sovereignty is violated, then the statehood of that stands cancelled in my view.

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