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Ukraine War and the Perils of ‘Self-determination’

The right of “self-determination of the people” is a double-edged sword. It has been used by postcolonial nations to reclaim their territories and economy. The idea has also been exploited by the powerful countries to divide the world on ethnic and religious lines to advance their hegemony through humanitarian interventions.

Russia is the aggressor as per the international relations rule book—the destroyer of international stability and the post-1945 international order that proscribes war (Inglis 2022).

It has been argued that the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of military force against Ukraine is a direct assault on the principles of self-determination of all peoples (Sands 2022). His intention to deny Ukraine the right to choose its military partner violates the principles of sovereignty. Putin has attacked sovereignty and self-determination, the twin pillars of post-war liberal international order.

Putin feels that the right of self-determination bestowed on Ukraine by international law is a travesty of history and a brutal insult to Russia. Six years ago, Putin condemned Vladimir Lenin for placing a time bomb under the Russian state by drawing administrative borders along ethnic lines. According to the Russian President, Lenin’s move to place Donbas under Ukrainian jurisdiction was nothing but “delirious” (Associated Press 2016).

Paradoxically, Putin is critical of Lenin for introducing the concept of a federative state with its entities having the right to secede, but supports self-determination right for the people of Crimea and Donbas.

Russia is not alone in simultaneously supporting and working against the concept. This contradiction lies at the heart of post-war international politics. Beijing baulks at anyone who supports the independence of Taiwan from mainland China, but remains ambivalent about supporting India against Pakistan on Kashmir issue.

India is equally expedient in using the self-determination right to advance its geopolitical interests. Recently, India abstained in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on a resolution that condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine because it neither supports the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty nor is it willing to outrightly condemn Russia. India wants to preserve its relations with Russia and the option of using the concept of self-determination in its battle with China. Explaining India’s stand, Ram Madhav (2022), a prominent voice in the ruling party’s foreign policy establishment, wrote that India

could not have accepted Putin’s basic proposition that Ukrainians were not a separate nation, without risking negating its stand on Tibet, Taiwan and other occupied or claimed countries by China.

Islamabad that detests the mention of dissent in Balochistan often invokes the rights of Kashmiri people to use it against New Delhi.

A Double-edged Sword

More than a century ago, Lenin worked on the idea of self-determination at the time of its inception in political discourse. Putin is reviewing it after the idea has been profaned over the years by its misuse for Western imperial expansion.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, the anti-colonial nationalist movements in Africa and Asia started germinating. The American and German capitalists were keen to end the British domination of the world, and reconfigure it for their markets to grow. The Marxists saw self-determination movements as a pragmatic means to mobilise the revolutionary zeal of the masses. It was in this context that Lenin wrote in July 1916,

The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene. (Prashad 2020)

Rosa Luxemburg opposed Lenin’s radical articulation of the right to national self-determination because she felt that the idea of nation was a useful tool for the bourgeoisie to perpetuate their class rule. She advocated international revolution and not nationalism as the route to working-class emancipation. Lenin identified the socialists opposed to self-determination as “Great Nation chauvinists,” who approved the dominant nation’s oppression over other nations.

Similar disputes prevailed regarding the question of self-determination within the capitalist world. Americans remained ambivalent about the Wilsonian endorsement of the “right of self-determination” throughout the interwar years and even after the end of World War II.

The 1941 Atlantic Charter gave broad hints about the role of anti-colonialism in the American conceptions of the postwar world without fully endorsing the principle of self-determination.

In the post-war period, the rise of decolonisation demand further signified the right to self-determination of nations and the principle was enshrined in the UN charter. Interestingly, the United States (US) voted against the 1952 UN General Assembly resolution claiming self-determination as a human right, without realising the future importance of the principle as well the human rights in the advance of the “American Century.”

The disintegrating empires used the idea of “self-determination” to fuel secession and insurgencies based on ethnic, religious, and cultural fault lines to redraw the borders and boundaries of the newly independent nation states. The rise of nationalism was accompanied by a concomitant surge in identity politics that diluted anti-colonial nationalism and proved detrimental to the prospects of class war.

The replacement of anti-colonial nationalism by ethnonationalism has exposed the perils of “self-determination.” The right has, to a large extent, legitimised violent struggles that are inspired by identity politics. It is one of the main reasons that the post-colonial era is marred by ethnic, religious, and cultural conflicts in the erstwhile colonies. The accompanying narrative has labelled some postcolonial states as imperialists for using excessive force against insurgencies within their territories.

Everyone Is Imperialist?

For some Kashmiris, Pakistanis and even many Western scholars, India is an “imperial nation” for denying the right of self-determination to the Kashmiri people. According to Nitasha Kaul (2019),

Muslim-majority Kashmir has always been India’s Oriental “other,” loaded with fantasies of beauty and cruelty as surely as any Ottoman harem in the fervid imagination of Europeans.

For a section of the population in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan, and advocates of human rights in the West, the Chinese imperial ambitions are the root cause of the problems. According to Martin S Flaherty (2020), a human rights teacher at the Princeton University and Fordham Law School, Beijing’s much-feared national security law for Hong Kong heralds nothing less than imperialism with Chinese characteristics.”

After World War I when the Ottoman Empire was divided and new borders were drawn up, the Kurdish population spread to Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Today these four countries fall into the category of imperialist powers because they use draconian measures to stall the rights of self-determination of Kurdish people. This narrative has been promoted by both, Western conservatives as well the liberal left. For example, the editorial of the Bulletin, the organ of the “American Committee for the Fourth International” writing against Saddam Hussein in April 1991, said,

The brutal suppression carried out by the Iraqi army in the retaking of the oil center of Kirkuk and the towns of Kohuk, Irbil and Zakhu in the north, the oppressed Kurdish people have once again been made the victims of a tragedy and betrayal at the hands of imperialism. (Bulletin Editorial 1991)

Ukraine is the new entrant into the list of victims of near-home imperialism. The anti-war activists, pacifists and liberal–democrats are seeking the settlement of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine through negotiation, on a basis which recognises the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination.

While self-determination” was the nemesis of the formal empires, the idea proved to be a boon for the informal empires. The growing demand for self-determination rights creates hotspots that help big powers to use the crisis as pretext for the so-called humanitarian interventions.1 In 1947, the former US President Harry Truman (1947) pledged to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed mino­ri­ties or by outside pressures,” thereby enabling America to advance its hegemony.

In Conclusion

Today, Putin is the main culprit for overt use of force and the West, relying on soft power and arms supplies to manage the Ukrainian regime, is a lesser evil. However, is Putin’s irredentism a greater menace than ceaseless American hegemonic wars? The former is indulging in near-home or in-frontier imperialism. The latter practises classical imperialism that engineers regime changes and border reconfigurations across the world.

The medium and even small nation states are guilty of using repression and coercion to protect their territorial inte­grity or even to impose their ideology in their immediate peripheries. But can they be identified as imperialist powers? The dynamic that operates bet­ween nation states and groups or areas with distinctive claims within or in the vicinity of its territory, is totally at variance with the equation between the natives and the colonial power on a prowl to occupy distant lands and people. Therefore, it is difficult to equate near-home or in-frontier imperialism with the classical imperialism exercised at a global level by a big power.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine at best falls in the category of near-home imperialism, which is primarily an offshoot of the overbearing structures of dominance erected by the US in Ukraine since the end of the Cold War and especially after the takeover of Crimea in 2014. The dilemma is that often in the process of condemning in-frontier imperialism we tend to side with the overarching imperial power that controls the levers of war and peace in the world.

The international relations scholarship needs to review the right of self-determination” within nation states and also make distinction between imperialism that operates on a global scale and the one that remains restricted within its frontiers.


1 The debate on what constitutes a legitimate or illegitimate intervention or just and unjust war has been raging ever since the 1793 French Constitution discarded the idea of interference in affairs of other countries (Morgenthau 1967). The revival of the concept of “interventions” in international politics gained legitimacy with the intensification of the Cold War. In December 1965, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of their Independence and Sovereignty.” This clause also failed to prevent interventions and violations of sovereignty by big powers and both Soviet Union and the United States continued to pursue their foreign policy objectives by instigating insurgencies or wars in the peripheries. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is the latest international norm that supports interventions in response to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. If the state fails to prevent these then the international community may resort to collective action to mitigate the situation. Based on past experiences it is difficult to be sanguine about the international community’s ability to stop these crimes. However, there is a high probability that R2P may be used as another tool to justify interventions by great powers in small and medium countries.


Associated Press (2016): “Vladimir Putin Accuses Lenin of Placing a ‘Time Bomb’ Under Russia,” Guardian, 25 January.

Bulletin Editorial (1991): “Imperialism Inflicts New Tragedy upon Kurdish People,” republished in World Socialist Web Site, 5 April,

Flaherty, Martin S (2020): “China’s National Security Law in Hong Kong Doubles Down on Imperialism,” Washington Post, 3 July.

Inglis, Shelly (2022): “Putin Could Be Charged With the Crime of Aggression for the Ukraine War—But It’s An Expensive Process with High Stakes,” Conversations, 19 May, viewed on 25 June 2022,

Kaul, Nitasha (2019): “Kashmir Is under the Heel of India’s Colonialism,” Foreign Policy, 13 August.

Madhav, Ram (2022): “The Complex Roots of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” Hindustan Times, 1 March.

Morgenthau, Hans J (1967): “To Intervene or Not to Intervene,” Foreign Affairs, April.

Prashad, Vijay (2020): “The Internationalist Lenin: Self-determination and Anti-colonialism,” MRonline, 10 August, viewed on 28 June 2022,

Sands, Philippe, (2022): “Putin’s Use of Military Force Is a Crime of Aggression,” Financial Times, 28 February.

Truman, Harry S (1947): “Address of the President to Congress, Recommending Assistance to Greece and Turkey,” 12 March, Harry S Truman, Elsey Papers, viewed on 12 July 2022­documentdate=1947-03-12&documentid=5-9&pagenumber=1.


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Updated On : 1st Aug, 2022
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