By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Every annexation leaves the world in turmoil. The ramifications of such an act go beyond the frontiers of the land or state being seized by a more powerful neighbor and well into the wider global community.
Annexations harden attitudes. They promote belligerency all around. They confound nations. They leave societies nonplussed because in these post-modern times it is not the ethical thing to seize a country or part of a country, be it by ‘referenda’ or through force of arms, and imagine everything will be all right, that people will look the other way.
It was not all right when Russia annexed Crimea a few years ago. It was all wrong for the leadership in Moscow to launch a military assault on Ukraine in February this year. And its annexation of Kherson, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk was a clear assault on global order.
In these times, annexations fly in the face of international relations because they are a throwback to the era when states either did not exist according to modern specifications or because they were too raw, too embryonic to comprehend the consequences of such action.
In our more settled era — and unsettled global politics — what was once done to Poland, to Czechoslovakia, to France, not because they were annexed by the Nazis but because they were unabashedly occupied was condemned by the rest of the world. Condemned too was militaristic Japan for the havoc it wreaked in China and Korea and elsewhere.
The Nazis paid a price. So did Emperor Hirohito’s Japan. But the lessons they learned were not taken into cognisance by the likes of Saddam Hussein. When the Iraqi leader decreed an attack on Kuwait in 1990 and followed it up by annexing the country as a province of his country, he needed to be punished for his aggression. In the end, Kuwait was liberated by a coalition of multinational forces. It was Iraq which suffered.
Annexations may not be rolled back, but those who indulge in annexations remain tarred with the ignominy which comes associated with their behavior. Vladimir Putin, in his nationalistic zeal resting on his not really concealed belief that the fall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy — a sentiment shared by millions around the world — did not do his people and people around the world any good by commandeering fifteen per cent-plus of Ukraine on Friday.
There are times when annexations cause, eventually, predictable opprobrium for the state indulging in the act. The Suharto regime’s belief that East Timor — today independent Timor Leste — was part of Indonesia and so could be seized came to naught with Timor’s people waging a relentless struggle for freedom. Before it retreated, the Indonesian military presided over a pogrom in Timor which the history books have duly recorded. The annexation of the country did not work. It should never have been undertaken in the first place.
All annexations are attempts to wipe out the cultures and traditions of people for whom history is a fundamental reason for being. The seizure of Tibet by China, the sad tales of the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers making the difficult, slippery path to exile in Dharamsala will forever be part of the global historical lexicon. China will not relinquish its hold on Tibet; and Tibetans do not believe their land can one day be part of the global landscape of independent nations.
In large measure, every annexation is an instance of neo-colonialism. It is a throwback to imperialistic tendencies on the part of states not averse to subjugating nations unable to fend off assaults on their sovereign integrity as societies.
And yet moral integrity remains the bedrock of people’s faith in themselves. They lose their countries; and their countries turn into dreams of what once used to be. But in their souls history and tradition, the undying tales of heritage, go on shining in the brilliance of memory.
Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia may have gone and yet may return to the mother country someday. For now, those who have sliced them out of Ukraine would do well to remember that annexations exact a heavy price for aggressors from the wider world out there.
Every annexation is an act of political blasphemy against global order.