Artículo World Politics Review, 25.02.2022 Charli Carpenter profesora de ciencia política (U. de Massachusetts-Amherst)
There has been no shortage of analyses of what has motivated Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. Many of these arguments seem to implicitly assume that Russia is putting its geostrategic interests ahead of adherence to Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, which prohibits the use of armed conflict to resolve disputes absent self-defense or authorization from the Security Council. Similar arguments—that Russia is brazenly flouting and even threatening U.N. Charter norms—are being made in political speeches by leaders and representatives of the Western powers and U.N. member states.
It is absolutely true that nothing less than the normative basis for the existing world order is at stake in this conflict. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a throwback to what law professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro refer to as the “Old World Order,” where war was the legitimate means to address historical wrongs, correct for power imbalances or pursue any political objectives. It is precisely the kind of act that the U.N. Charter was meant to prevent, and one that European powers have by and large avoided—and collectively punished when other states attempted it—for the past 70 years.
But most analysts are missing something very important in the scramble to interpret Russia’s motivations and game out the potential implications of this conflict. For the past 20-plus years since 9/11, Russia has been, along with China, the Security Council’s most vocal advocate for the sanctitude of the U.N. Charter, particularly when calls to bend the rules prohibiting armed conflict against another state hinge on the protection of ethnic minorities, revenge for past wrongs or fear of a potential invasion.
So why is Russia now pointedly making the very same arguments that President Vladimir Putin has always been the first to criticize, in an almost comically unconvincing way to boot ?
Take Russia’s claim that its invasion of Ukraine constitutes a war of self-defense because Moscow feels threatened by Kyiv’s ambitions to join NATO. This appeal to the legitimacy of “preventive war” as a concept is not only out of kilter with the U.N. Charter, which allows self-defense only in the event of an actual armed attack. It is also an argument that Russia has persistently opposed since it was first introduced by the United States in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan without express authorization from the Security Council to avenge the 9/11 attacks, using a guilt-by-association approach toward the Taliban government for refusing to extradite Osama bin Laden. The U.S. justified its invasion of Iraq, again without Security Council authorization, to prevent the hypothetical future use of weapons of mass destruction. At the time, Russia argued disapprovingly against these rationales for the use of armed force.
Then there is the concept of “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, which reinterprets sovereignty with a view to preventing atrocities against civilians and includes a limited right of humanitarian intervention, even without Security Council authorization, to prevent crimes against humanity and genocide. This right and/or duty of intervention, as political scientist Ian Hurd writes, is not grounded in international treaties, nor was it ever agreed upon by the international community writ large. And it always sat uneasily with the U.N. Charter, which places the power to determine whether a crisis warrants military intervention in the hands of the Security Council.
Over three decades, Russia has persistently objected to the concept of R2P on the basis that it would undermine the U.N. Charter rules. In Kosovo, an early test case for the R2P norm, Russia went so far as to draft a Security Council resolution condemning the invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter. In that debate, Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.N., Sergey Lavrov, argued “The illegal use of force by NATO directly undermines the fundamental bases of the entire modern system of international relations, which is based on the primacy of the United Nations Charter.”
In the end, this was a lonely and futile endeavor. The resolution failed, with only China, Namibia and Russia voting in favor. But as Masha Gessen argues in The New Yorker, the Kosovo conflict and the normative humiliation of Russia’s defense of the U.N. Charter at the Security Council in 1999 has weighed heavily on Russia’s leadership ever since. Putin himself was first appointed prime minister and then acting president by Boris Yeltsin only months afterward.
How are we to understand the use by Russia now of the very same arguments that have, over the past three decades, been the thorn in its side when used by the United States? The realist view, of course, is that neither the U.S. nor Russia care much about the U.N. Charter when it doesn’t suit them. Political scientists like Ward Thomas would argue, however, that even great powers can become invested in international rules, precisely because preserving them helps maintain their own power in the system. Powerful countries like the U.S. benefit from the perpetuation of an anti-assassination norm, for instance, because assassination as a tactic favors the weak. Similarly, Russia benefits from the perpetuation of a ban against aggressive war, because Russia’s geography has historically left it exposed to repeated invasions, particularly from Western Europe.
In other words, the U.N. Charter regime ostensibly protects Russian territorial integrity as much as it constrains Russia from imperialism in what it considers its historical sphere of influence. It is perhaps for this reason that Russia has been such a vocal defender of that regime against what it perceived as efforts by Western powers to chip away at it through either preventive war or humanitarian intervention.
For years, Russia has found itself losing this argument on the international stage in diplomatic forums. Perhaps now, it is hoping to win by demonstrating the very dangers it has been warning against.
A few years ago, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, political scientists Betcy Jose and Christoph Stefes asked if Moscow was engaged in a kind of ideational diplomacy. They argued that Russia’s motivations for military action in Crimea in 2014 “might not have been exclusively rooted in the pursuit of material interests. … they may have also been advocating for a norm that enables states to act unilaterally to protect their ethnic kin endangered within another state’s territory.” In other words, they argued, Russia’s aim in Crimea was to grudgingly accept the reality of the R2P norm, which it seemed powerless to contest diplomatically, while creatively redefining it in a manner more suited to its own expansionist interests.
Jose and Stefes may be right that what is on its face a norm violation can simultaneously be intended as a kind of norm advocacy. If so, it’s possible to see Russia’s current actions as intended to reinforce its own argument about the importance and fragility of the U.N. Charter norms. After all, Russia has actually been arguing against R2P for many years, on the basis that it would open the door to nations doing precisely what Russia is doing now: creating humanitarian justifications for what would in reality be violations of the territorial integrity norm.
This also explains the almost theatrical sloppiness of Russia’s rhetoric. It’s almost as if Russia wants its justifications to be rejected. As the BBC’s Mark Urban put it on Twitter, “By mirroring the tactics and messages employed by NATO in 1999 the Kremlin might hope to troll the western alliance on a historical scale, and underline the aggressive character of NATO seen from Moscow, but to maintain that its actions were justified by precedent.”
But rather than see this as an effort to flout or redefine U.N. Charter rules, or pure “you did it first”-ism, it would be more consistent with Russian diplomatic history to view this as a reinforcement of Russia’s argument for the U.N. Charter to be more strictly interpreted rather than less. Russia is essentially proving through its actions the very “slippery slope” case it has been making without success at the Security Council for decades, thereby reinforcing the normative value of the U.N. Charter rules.
This view of the situation complements various other interpretations of the current crisis. At Just Security, Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel argue that Russia is less threatened by NATO expansion than by political competition in its neighborhood, and that by attacking Ukraine, it hopes to buttress its domestic autocracy by ensuring that Russian citizens do not have an example of a thriving democracy on Russia’s doorstep. This fits game theory analyses of how autocrats think and what they need in order to maintain power. And it supports the argument that Russia, and its autocratic allies, would benefit from a strict interpretation of the territorial integrity norm—which protects the right of nations to govern illiberally, and even to commit human rights abuses against their own populations without intervention—that has come under pressure in recent decades from the interventionist West.
It is unlikely that Russia’s actions are based on purely ideational motivations. Regardless, Russia had choices in how to justify its actions. It chose justifications that dovetail almost sarcastically with those used by the West—preventive war and humanitarian intervention—to which it added its own creative, brazen, ethnonationalist ingredients that would truly undo the U.N. Charter rules altogether were they accepted even tacitly by the international community. It is as if Russia both wants to give the West a taste of its own medicine and simultaneously demonstrate the logical consequences of normative overstretch, by reminding us of the world as it was without the U.N. Charter.
It is too early to know how this conflict will end. But if the denouement includes a fresh set of understandings about the value of enforcing U.N. Charter norms more rigorously, rather than less so, it is quite possible that Russia would consider that a win.