Dangerous Precedents: Russia’s Use and Misuse of International Law

Russia’s recent actions on the world stage—annexing Crimea, supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine, and intervening in the Syrian civil war—suggest that the former Soviet superpower adheres more to the tenets of 19th century realpolitik than to those of the modern international order. Russian foreign policy is characterized primarily by spheres of influence, a willingness to apply more military power to its chosen conflicts than its opponents, and a clear and narrow national interest. However, examining the rhetoric used to justify these actions reveals another important and surprising dimension: international law.

Russia often invokes international law to justify its actions, while downplaying its hypocrisy by shifting blame to the West. In his 2014 address to the State Duma justifying the annexation of Crimea, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin mentions international law six times. He advances his own case and adherence to global rule of law while simultaneously criticizing Western disregard for the international legal principles Russia supposedly upholds. This conceals Russia’s own blatant violations of international law in Crimea. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which states that United Nations member states must “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” is the obvious citation. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine, is less known but equally significant. It calls on the signatories to “reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” When condemning the annexation of Crimea, which garnered widespread criticism, these are the two arguments dissenting states most readily call upon.

“Russian foreign policy is characterized primarily by spheres of influence, a willingness to apply more military power to its chosen conflicts than its opponents, and a clear and narrow national interest.”

An assessment of the situation in Crimea based on the international legal principles Russia uses to justify its actions in another conflict, the Syrian civil war, would also condemn the annexation. Russia’s choice of targets—primarily rebel positions, which often include civilian institutions like hospitals and schools—may violate humanitarian law and the Syrian people’s right to self-determination. However, Russia has been invited to participate in the conflict on behalf of the Syrian government, allowing Syria’s “territorial integrity” and “political independence” to take precedence. This directly contradicts Russia’s approach in Ukraine, where self-determination and the humanitarian protection of the Russian-speaking population are cited as grounds for ignoring Ukrainian integrity and independence.

Though its approaches are often contradictory, Russia repeatedly uses international law to justify and advance its foreign policy. So why is this concept, often considered Western and occasionally at odds with the realities of power politics, so important to a state that sees itself as both realist and anti-Western?

Perhaps it is an attempt to gain international legitimacy. Faced with cool, if not directly adversarial, relationships with other world powers, Russia may be seeking a way to portray its actions as not only effective on the ground, but acceptable to world public opinion. International law is accepted by virtually all states as a legitimate framework for action in a way that unchecked national interest is not. If an action taken out of national interest can be framed in accordance with international law, a state can refute claims that it is acting without considering the rights and opinions of other states. Because of this, even a tenuous international legal argument in defense of its foreign policy choices allows Russia to claim its national interest is in accordance with more universal norms, making other states less likely to question its actions.

This strategy may also serve to portray the United States and its European allies as illegitimate, strengthening Russia’s relative position. Simply proclaiming it acts according to international law brings Russia to a certain international standard. Asserting that Western states do not hold the same regard for international law accuses the very states considered to have set that international standard of having fallen below it, and casts criticisms of Russian foreign policy based on international law in a hypocritical light. By citing the Iraq War as a more severe violation of international law than Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, Russia chooses interpretations and examples of international law that focus on abuses, rather than patterns of adherence. This improves its own appearance and harms the integrity of the West’s.

“By citing the Iraq War as a more severe violation of international law than Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, Russia chooses interpretations and examples of international law that focus on abuses, rather than patterns of adherence. This improves its own appearance and harms the integrity of the West’s.”

The prominence of international law in Russian foreign policy also shows Russia’s potential to alter international law through precedent. In both Ukraine and Syria, Russia has been willing to expend more military power to achieve its desired outcome than its adversaries and their allies. If Russia’s actions on the ground do not face serious pushback, the international legal arguments it manipulates to justify such conduct will continue to aid the transgressions embedded in Russia’s foreign policy agenda. As a state with a struggling economy and few powerful allies, Russia uses the military outcomes of its chosen conflicts to shift the interpretation of international law in its favor, thereby reaping the maximum benefit from its costly and contentious endeavors.

Both the legitimacy argument and the use of military power to set international legal precedents are difficult for the West, especially the United States, to respond to effectively. There is validity in Russian criticisms of Western infractions. The role of the United States in framing and promoting international law makes its violations particularly damaging to the legitimacy of many international legal rules. However, no state’s violation of international law is beneficial to the international system as a whole, regardless of which other states have taken similar actions. When Russia violates international law on the grounds that the West did so first, it highlights Russia’s view of international law as a tool to be manipulated, not a set of rules to be followed; any violation, Russian or Western, illustrates the weakness of international law in general.

The United States may or may not be caught in a “new Cold War” with Russia. Knowledge of the subtleties of Russian foreign policy is essential in an age where tensions are high, hybrid conflicts abound, and nontraditional aspects of war are used to gain advantages. Understanding international law as a tool Russia uses in contradictory ways to advance its own legitimacy, challenge the West, and institutionalize precedents that serve its interests, will give the world greater insight into all aspects of these conflicts, no matter the level to which they intensify.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. (Pak/UN Photo, Creative Commons)


Meghan Bodette will be attending Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the fall of 2016. She is interested in international relations theory and foreign policy, is studying Spanish and Russian, and has volunteered with a presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter and Medium.

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