The Territorial Roots of Interstate Conflict

After a prolonged period of relative peace between states, the last fifteen years have seen an explosion of global interstate conflict, with conflict between military forces of sovereign nations spiking and continuing to rise.[1] Indeed, over the last eighteen months alone international news has been dominated, first, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, most recently, by the Israeli assault on Palestine following Hamas’ October 7, 2023 attack on Israeli border settlements. These headlines bookend a period littered with conflicts between, among others, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and China, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Longstanding theories of international relations commonly attribute conflict to issues such as great power competition,[2] ethnic conflict,[3] or shifts in the distribution of power.[4] However, the regional spread and ethno-religious distribution of these conflicts necessitates an alternative framework to understand the rise of conflict.

A close examination of the root causes of these conflicts points to a rather obvious spark: disputes over borders and territory. At their core, these disputes can be categorized as states’ dissatisfaction with their distribution of territory and a desire to expand their homeland. For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine comes eight years after its annexation of Crimea in an effort to expand the Russian state and reclaim lost territory.[5] Similar reflections of the Hamas 10/7 attack on Israeli border settlements,[6] Azerbaijan’s annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh,[7] or Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes lead one to conclude that the role of territory and border integrity is a central component of the rapid rise in violence.[8]

The left-hand panel of the figure below demonstrates this trend empirically. Since 1980 there has been a steady decline in the percentage of global conflicts that are interstate (fought between two countries). However, in the last 10 years this figure has trended upward with more countries fighting wars with each other. The righthand panel of the figure illustrates the proportion of all conflict globally that involves disputes over territory. Issues of territory, land, and border integrity have always been motivators for conflict. However, the proportion of territorial conflict has risen sharply since 2010. Together, these two trends suggest that countries are fighting more wars and, now more than ever, territory is motivating it.

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*Note: Data comes from UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset. Figures are the author’s own work.

Borders, Territory, and International Conflict

The idea of territorial conflict is not new. Decades of scholarship have argued that borders and territorial disputes are the principal motivator for interstate conflict,[9] international rivalry,[10] and even democratization.[11] Some of the defining trends and patterns of the international order can trace their origin to territorial disputes. Disputes, in particular, became a more common occurrence after World War II. The dissolution of empires coupled with decolonial movements led to a spike in new states and, in turn, a spike in territorial claims and conflict.[12] Nascent nations were struggling to define their borders and feuding with neighbors over land that maintained ethnic homelands, provided economic value, or strategic benefits. While it did not always lead to war, these disputes continued to fester amongst states and provided the foundation for military action between states.

But after the Cold War, a longtime trend of interstate conflict began to fall and violence moved to the domestic space. Sub-national conflict was becoming the biggest threat to state instability and, in turn, international order. Civil conflicts would spill over to neighboring countries and sometimes escalate to disputes between states.[13] Though these conflicts became more domestic, it did not change their territorial nature.[14] States became increasingly threatened by secessionist claims and guerilla movements that changed the fundamental dynamics of conflict and violence. The focus shifted from fighting for sovereignty and border security to territorial integrity and the monopoly over domestic violence. Indeed, some of the most catastrophic and sustained conflicts over the last 20 years have been over territorial rights to a homeland within a state, for example South Sudan,[15] Yemen,[16] Kashmir,[17] and the Kurdish movement.[18]

More recently however, there is a concerning return to interstate conflict, with the proportion of conflicts involving two or more states reaching a 15-year high. But the framing of these wars as great power politics or ethnic conflict has diluted the original cause of conflict.[19] If we are to understand why states fight wars and, hopefully, to mitigate conflict going forward, we should reframe the way that we think about these wars. Conflicts over ethno-religious differences or unequal power are symptoms of larger territorial issues that these states face. Disputes can range from the location of a border to the inclusion of periphery territory or even intrinsic ties to a homeland. States use territorial rights as an excuse to drum up nationalist rhetoric and display bona fides as a strong player in the world.[20] Ultimately, the root of the conflict lies in the rights of territory. 

If we look at the ongoing war between Israelis and Palestinians, analyzing it as a geopolitical power dispute or a group level religious dispute ignores the very real and influential role of territorial integrity. Instead, we should think of this conflict as a fundamental fight for territorial rights and homeland.[21] The principle motivation for Palestinian militants over the last 70 years has been a state of their own with territorial independence.  Conversely, Israel views its survival as a state and the maintenance of its homeland as the goal of its campaigns.  It can be argued that Israeli nationalism or ethnic exceptionalism are motivators as well but nationalist motivation for war is incomplete without an accompanying homeland to defend and fight for. In this way, territory and the right to settle land is the fundamental issue at hand.

The Origins of Conflict

Oftentimes, territorial conflicts can be traced to the historical context and circumstances that the border was drawn or under which the states were defined. Historical precedents and competing ideas of territory can challenge contemporary ideas of a state and lead to conflict over the position of the border or the rights to disputes lands.[22],[23] Whether it be colonial governance or great power competition, states can often cite historical grievances as a motivation for their aggression today.

In the case of Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan, we can see the remnants of Soviet era territorial delineation. The National Territorial Delineation (NTD) policy in the late 1920s reorganized many of the Soviet republics along ethnic lines. However, the borders were drawn without respect for local conditions in communities. Today, the two states have a vaguely defined border and clash over water and land rights for farmers in the border region. A ceasefire was broken in January of 2022 when both countries fought border skirmishes that killed more than 50 people.[24]

Post-Soviet republics are not alone in their border challenges. Just last year India and China clashed over their border for the second time in two years. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) was an old British Empire artifact called the McMahon line that was drawn between British India and Tibet. The two successor states (India and China) dispute the historical circumstances of the border and continue to fight over it today. Their dispute arises from India’s claim that the LAC is a legitimate territorial barrier negotiated by the British while China claims the boundary was negotiated illegitimately by Tibet (which is another territorial question that threatens this region). These boundary issues shape India and China diplomatic relations and can help explain the strategic tensions between the states in Asia.[25]

Borders are just part of the equation. States might have skirmishes when tensions are high, but disputed territories can introduce a more challenging negotiation. Such is the case with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Azerbaijan taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. The former case is an example of a historical claim to a region. The sentiment behind the Russian invasion could be described as a desire to reclaim part of a greater homeland rather than a rebuke of Western influence. The latter is a case where two states both claim the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabkh. In 2020 Azerbaijan made significant territorial gains, and hostilities flared up again in September 2022 when they sought to formalize their territorial gains.[26]

Solving the Territorial Question

If we are to combat the rising trend of interstate territorial conflict and mitigate these disputes going forward, we must prioritize solving the underlying territorial questions that drive them. From Central Asia to the Middle East, it is clear that disputed territories and borders are still motivating interstate conflicts, and these cases are hardly unique. We can think of long-standing disputes between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, or Israel and Syria. While not actively engaged in militarized disputes, these are contested borders and territories with the propensity to escalate if one state chooses to engage. It was just three years ago that Pakistan released a new state map that claimed parts of India as its own.[27] As recently as November, China has continued its threats of military encroachment by sending aircrafts and ships towards the sovereign Taiwan.[28]

Unfortunately, these cases are not limited to regions either. In December 2023, Venezuela voted on a referendum to claim the disputed region of Essequibo as their own from the neighboring state of Guyana.[29] With mass popular support, President Maduro mobilized armed forces along the border in an apparent buildup to military action. The region, which is rich in oil, has been disputed by both states since their independence. The colonial legacy of the Spanish, Dutch, and British Empires have left much to be decided. While this has not yet resulted in a violent conflict, tensions remain high between the two governments.

While many of these cases are historical disputes that have been ongoing for years, states have chosen the last few years to escalate them. It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a systemic imbalance that states saw as an opportunity. We know from previous research that  systemic crisis can incite territorial disputes or how citizens in one state can be influenced by military success of neighboring states. The globalized nature of the international system means wars can have spillover effects and states can use regional or international conflicts as a catalyst for their own irredentism.[30],[31]

Regardless of the cause, the growing number of interstate conflicts is a concerning trend. The international community should recognize them for what they are and offer solutions that address the root cause. Interventions must begin by acknowledging the territorial disagreement and domestic sovereignty.  Alongside protecting civilians from indiscriminate violence, we should affirm rights to self-determination by safeguarding against incursion, occupation, and expulsion. The condemnation of a state’s ethnic discrimination or power grab should be coupled by a repudiation of the violation of territorial integrity norms and offers of peace negotiations should center the division of territory and the definition of border politics. These approaches can help to better solve conflicts and hopefully mitigate the trend going forward.


[1] Emma Beals and Peter Salisbury, “A World at War,” Foreign Affairs, October 30, 2023,

[2] Kenneth Waltz, “Theory of International Politics,” (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1979).

[3] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilization,” Foreign Affairs, 1991,

[4] Robert Powell, “War as a Commitment Problem,” International Organization Vol. 60 No. 1 (2006): 169-203,

[5] Wojciech Konończuk, “Russia’s Real Aims in Crimea,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 13, 2014,

[6] Alex Sundby, “Map, Aerial Images Show Where Hamas Attacked Israeli Towns Near Gaza Strip,” CBS News, October 11, 2023,

[7] Samuel Ramani, “How the End of Nagorno-Karabakh Will Reshape Geopolitics,” Foreign Policy, October 25, 2023,

[8] Gavin Helf, “Border Clash Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Risks Spinning Out of Control,” United States Institute of Peace, May 4, 2021,

[9] Paul R. Hensel, “Charting a Course to Conflict: Territorial Issues and Interstate Conflict, 1816-1992,” Conflict Management and Peace Science Vol. 15 No. 1 (1996): 43–73,

[10] Paul K. Huth, “Enduring Rivalries and Territorial Disputes, 1950-1990,” Conflict Management and Peace Science Vol. 15 No. 1 (1996): 7–41,

[11] Andrew P. Owsiak, “Democratization and International Border Agreements.” The Journal of Politics Vol. 75 No. 3 (2013): 717–729,

[12] Ryan D. Griffiths, “Between Dissolution and Blood: How Administrative Lines and Categories Shape Secessionist Outcomes,” International Organization Vol. 69, No. 3 (2015): 731-751,

[13] Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, Idean Salehyan, and Kenneth Schultz, “Fighting at Home, Fighting Abroad: How Civil Wars Lead to International Disputes.” Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 52 No. 4 (2008): 479– 506,

[14] Barbara F. Walter, “Explaining the Intractability of Territorial Conflict,” International Studies Review Vol. 5 No. 4 (2003):137–153,

[15] Angela Stephens, “Two Sudans: The Separation of Africa’s Largest Country and the Road Ahead,” USAID, October 2011, https://2012-2017,

[16] Eleonora Ardemagni, “Yemen’s Southern Military Crisis,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 19, 2019,

[17] Sumantra Bose, “Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace,” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003),

[18]  Council on Foreign Relations, “The Kurds’ Long Struggle With Statelessness,”last modified November 2022,

[19] John J. Mearsheimer, “The Darkness Ahead: Where the Ukraine War Is Headed,” John’s Substack, June 23, 2023,

[20] Burak Kadercan, “Nationalism and War for Territory: from ‘Divisible’ Territories to Inviolable Homelands,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs Vol. 30 No. 4 (2018): 368–393,

[21] Oren Yiftachel, “Territory as the Kernel of the Nation: Space, Time and Nationalism in Israel/Palestine,” Geopolitics Vol.7 No. 2 (2002): 215–248,

[22] David B. Carter and Hein E. Goemans, “The Making of the Territorial Order: New Borders and the Emergence of Interstate Conflict,” International Organization Vol. 65 No.2 (2011): 275–309,

[23] Scott F. Abramson and David B. Carter, “The Historical Origins of Territorial Disputes,” American Political Science Review Vol. 110 No. 4 (2016): 675–698,

[24] Aijan Sharshenova, “More Than a Border Skirmish Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” The Diplomat, September 19, 2022,

[25] Nishant Rajiv and Alex Stephenson, “Why We Should All Worry About the China-India Border Dispute,” United States Institute of Peace, May 31, 2023,

[26] Mathieu Droin, Tina Dolbaia, and Abigail Edwards, “A Renewed Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Reading Between the Front Lines,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 22, 2023,

[27] Rahul Noronha, “Why Pakistan has Claimed Junagadh in its New Political Map,” India Today, August 8, 2020, junagadh-in-its-new-political-map-1708515-2020-08-06.

[28] Christopher Bodeen, “China Keeps Up Military Pressure on Taiwan, Sending 43 Planes and 7 Ships Near Self-Governing Island,” The Associated Press, November 1, 2023, harassment-5dd5c16577e33b7cf464a7de00e54092.

[29] Juan Forero and Kejal Vyas, “Venezuela Deploys Military to Oil-Rich Guyana’s Border,” The Wall Street Journal,  February 9, 2024,

[30] Scott F. Abramson and David B. Carter, “Systemic Instability and the Emergence of Border Disputes,” International Organization Vol. 75 No. 1 (2021): 103–146,

[31] Deniz Aksoy, Ted Enamorado, and Tony Zirui Yang, “Russian Invasion of Ukraine and Chinese Public Support for War,” International Organization, Forthcoming.

Amaan Charaniya
Amaan Charaniya

Amaan Charaniya is a 4th year PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focuses primarily on borders, territory, and the consequences of international conflict.