The Russian approach to its dispute with Ukraine very likely involves changing borders. Whether defining new borders to carve out the two puppet states from Ukraine, or extending Russia’s border to include Ukraine (and apparently Belarus, per Putin’s public musings).
Most of Europe is scared shitless that opening the Pandora’s box of changing borders will disrupt the peace that has held in Europe for the most part since WW2.
I use the phrase “scared shitless” to try to drive home some of the issues hidden by the polite phrase “Inviolability of Borders” in international agreements such as the Helsinki Accords https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helsinki_Accords, which predate the dissolution of the USSR, as well as more recent agreements. Many of which the USA, Russia, and Ukraine are party to, not to mention all of Europe and most of the countries in the world.
Why does the principle of “Inviolability of Borders“ matter?
Let’s talk about Europe:
In the 20th century there were two major conflicts, the two “world wars”, where issues of borders and the integrity of countries were major contributing factors. E.g. WW1: Alsace Lorraine. Austria Hungary. E.g. WW2: Danzig. The Sudetenland. Not to mention all of the minor conflicts between the big wars over the borders in the Balkans and Poland and the Baltic states.
For the most part Europe has been at peace since World War II, Yugoslavia being the biggest exception.
But look at how WW2 was resolved: breathtakingly large border changes in areas that were historically German and Polish, accompanied by what amounts to ethnic cleansing.
If the principle of inviolability of borders is set aside, then Pandora’s box is opened.
There are several small parties in modern Germany that advocate reclaiming the eastern territories surrendered after WW2. Territories now inside Polish and Russian borders. Although it may seem unlikely now, but if Germany takes a rightist/populist turn this will arise again.
Similarly there are parties in Poland that advocate reclaiming historically Polish areas now in Belarus and Russia. (Whether they would hope to gain these without surrendering the territory Poland picked up from Germany after WW2 I don’t know.)
There’s a big Hungarian minority within Romania.
Note that both Poland and Hungary are already on the path to rightist populism, away from liberal towards illiberal democracy.
If the principle of inviolability of borders is abandoned, all of these issues and more can, and probably will, be raised again.
And that’s just Europe. Africa is even more vulnerable to issues that will arise if borders are not sacred. Even South America: Bolivian access to the Pacific? Revisit the Chaco?
Please don’t take my statement and attempted explanation of the principle of inviolability of borders to indicate that I think this is a good thing. I don’t. I think the principle of inviolability of borders is a fragile thing on which to base our hopes for peace. We might hope that the European project, the EU, might render borders irrelevant there… but Africa’s borders derived from the European colonial era are an impediment to its development. Trouble is, unless African borders are rendered irrelevant in the way that we hope Schengen borders continue to be, it is hard to see how they can be rationalized without major conflict.
So most of the countries of the world pay nervous lip service to the principle of the inviolability of borders. And in the meantime have to tolerate oppression of minorities within a country’s borders.
The options seem to be
A) inviolability of borders - a tenuous peace - with human rights issues for minorities like the Kurds that don’t have their own borders
A’) evolution towards borders becoming irrelevant
B) between WW1 and WW2 the League of Nations tried to use plebiscites to allow disputed areas to determine which country they should belong to. WW2 seems to indicate this did not always work.
C) once borders are up for grabs, if self determination by the people of a region as in B) is not acceptable, there are far too many incompatible bases for determining where a border should be placed.
Eg Putin says that Ukraine is historically part of Greater Russia, since Kievan Rus. Maybe… but large parts of Ukraine spent more time under Polish, Lithuanian, Austrian and their own rule than they did under Moscow rule. Whose version of history wins?
D) failing any way of determining borders via principles of international law or human rights, it falls back to raw power politics. Whether economic or eventually military.
Which of course is the other lesson of the Russia / Ukraine dispute: If a country wants to preserve its independence, it helps to have nukes. It helps not to have given up your nukes.
And if that leads to more nuclear proliferation… well, I think it is in the interests of our survival as a species to prevent that conclusion.
So, why are the USA and Europe concerned about Russia “adjusting” its borders with Ukraine?
Because… if Russia adjusts its borders with Ukraine, it opens the doors to some future rightist version of Germany wanting Kaliningrad back from Russia, within the next century, the next time that Russia is down and Germany ascendant, if the European project fails.
Perhaps more likely: after mainland China recovers Taiwan, one possible next step with respect to recovering from China's Century of Humiliation would be to reverse some of the last of the Unequal Treaties - including the Treaty of Aigun (1858) that reversed the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689), that annexed the region between the Amur River and the Stanovoy Range to Russia.
So… if Russia ignores the "Principle of inviolability of Borders" and "adjusts" its borders with Ukraine, it opens the doors to
- Germany wanting Kaliningrad back from Russia
- China wanting Vladivostok, etc., back from Russia
Two of the three of the ice-free ports that Russia spent so many centuries trying to acquire - Sevastopol in Crimea being the third. Of course, with global warming Russia may not need these ports any more, if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice free.
That’s just my attempt at a pithy summary. Probably would not happen exactly that way, but the post-WW2 generation fears that something like that will happen - whether in some future illiberal Europe, in Africa, in Latin America…