Russia’s intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine may seem like a breathtaking assault on the international system. After all, Ukraine and its citizens have the right to determine their own future without the interference of other states, an international norm that has also become international law.
But Russia’s rather blatant meddling isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is a feature of the system. The question is less whether we’re okay with Russia breaking what had been a stable equilibrium in Ukraine (we shouldn’t be okay with it, though), but whether we’re okay with a system that favors the powerful, especially powerful states, over the weak, especially those in weak states.
While Russia denies allegations that it is supporting pro-Russian militias and demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine, there are good reasons to doubt those denials. More importantly, the norm of non-interference has clearly been broken: Russia admits to sending forces to Crimea and directly influenced various events leading up to its alliance with Russia; claims that Russia can get pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine to stand down and obvious troop buildups along the border are meant to influence the policies of the Ukrainian government in ways that are typically out-of-bounds for international politics.