Russia, military intervention, and Syria – and Ukraine

Thursday 13 March Dr Roy Allison, Oxford University, visited the IFS. Planned before the events in Ukraine, the main theme of the talk was Syria. Dr Allison also addressed the situation in Ukraine.

In his introduction, Dr Roy Allison outlined his analysis of Russia's position on international military interventions in the post-Cold War period. He paid particular reference to the Russian position on the Syria conflict, but touched upon the situation in Ukraine both in the introduction and in response to questions.

Professor Allison argued that overall, Russia has persistently emphasised the traditional norm of non-intervention in internal affairs. It has opposed the shift, driven mainly by the West, towards emphasising individual rights over state security. Similarly, Putin's Russia strongly opposed the Bush administration policy of regime change directed against "illegitimate regimes", or, in other words, of linking regime legitimacy with external action. Russia has adopted a position of international legal positivism, emphasising the UN Charter and the role of UN Security Council Resolutions as the only acceptable procedure for creating exceptions to the general prohibition on the use of force in international relations.

Dr Allison sees several motives behind the Russian position. One is based on realpolitik, i.e. opposing "Western interventionism" as a means of restraining Western power. Russia also holds more material motives. In the case of Syria, these include Russia's arms exports, its historical ties and influence in the region, but also, Dr Allison suggested, Russia's desire to present itself as a steadfast ally that will resist Western campaigns to unseat Russia-friendly regimes. Even more importantly in the case of Syria, Russia sees a victory of the opposition, with its ties to the international Islamist movement, in terms of a fear of consequences for Russia from the spread of Islamist terrorism.

The core motive for Russia is, however, its determination to protect the Russian domestic state order. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has increasingly emphasised the traditional Russian prioritisation of regime security over justice. The emphasis on stability is evident for instance in the emergence of the concept of sovereign democracy. The opposition to interventionism and rejection of the argument that protection of individual rights can override the sovereignty of the state, thus form a "rhetorical shield" for the Russian state order and the stability of the Putin regime.

Allison argued that this rejection of interventionism also extends to outside interference in the former Soviet space, the CIS region. Russia maintains that it has special privileges in this region. Russia views the CIS region as a more or less separate normative and legal sphere from the rest of the world. Due to this, Russian positions on wider global issues are not necessarily reflected in Russian policy towards CIS area. This is evident in the Russian interventions allegedly to protect Russians in both Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In Allison's view, the intervention in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians is even more disconcerting than the one in Georgia, where the ethnic card was not used (but rather the need to protect Russian citizens). The ethnic card opens for Russian intervention in many regions of the former Soviet space.

Dr Allison stressed Putin's emphasis on Russia's international position and his insistence on a rightful influence on international rulemaking. The Russian stress on the BRIC and G20 group is an expression of this. When asked what could be done to pressure Russia to abandon its designs on Ukraine, Allison suggested attempting to isolate Russia in international affairs – making it an international "pariah" – "could hit home with Putin". He values the influence participation in international fora gives. Such a policy will have costs, however, notably in terms of Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

Report by Paal S. Hilde

Dr Roy Allison is a University Lecturer in the International Relations of Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the University of Oxford.

He is the author of Russia, the West and Military Intervention. Oxford University Press, 2013.

This interdisciplinary study explores the persistent differences between Russian and Western leaders about most Western-led military campaigns and about Russia's own use of force in the CIS region.

What does this tell us about emerging norms on the use of force in humanitarian crises? How and why has there been such controversy over the legal justifications for these military operations? Has greater consensus been possible over force in global counterterrorism? What do all these controversies tell us about international rule-making? More specifically, how can we understand Russian political and diplomatic responses during international crises around major interventions?

This book argues that Russia has been influential in these debates on norms and law as a permanent United Nations Security Council member and as a major military power. Moscow's approach to these questions has reflected distinctive and quite entrenched attitudes to international order and sovereignty, as well as a preoccupation with its own status.

The book draws deeply on Russian sources to show how these attitudes are expressed among the Russian leadership and the political elite. This raises challenging questions about the ability of Russia and Western states to cooperate in emerging crises, in Syria, Iran, or elsewhere and about Russia's role in international society.

Publisert 13. mai 2014 00:00.. Sist oppdatert 28. juni 2016 11:07.