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How Does Russia Use Law To Legitimize War?

Updated: May 22, 2022

In 2005, the United Nations established the principle of Responsibility to Protect at the World Summit, commonly shortened to R2P. This principle was established with the expressed goal of preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in the world. Ratified unanimously by all 170 UN member states, this has largely been framed as a great step forward for stability and peace.

Like any globalized piece of legislation, there will be those that seek to bastardize and twist its original meaning. Russian President Vladimir Putin would never allow such an opportunity to slip away, and as such has been the target of multiple accusations. These accusations allege that he has used a portion of the R2P framework to illegally expand his empire in Europe and the Middle East.

The R2P principle is founded in the generally accepted belief that for a state to be truly sovereign, a government must provide for the protection of its people, first and foremost. This protection includes the four aforementioned forms of abuse, including the targeting of any one group within the nation’s territory. While much of this is already codified in international law, R2P acts not only as a bolster to that effect but also as a protective effort for certain sectors of the population. These sectors are not just vulnerable, but are commonly or routinely targeted.

To address this further, the UN established these three components referred to as the Three Pillars: “…the responsibility of each State to protect its populations (pillar I); the responsibility of the international community to assist States in protecting their populations (pillar II); and the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations (pillar III).”

The first and second pillars are largely seen as the core of the R2P scope. These outline the duties of the state to its people, as well as methods the international community may assist financially, materially, or in a consultative capacity. It is the third pillar that has come under some debate in recent years.

This concept has its roots in the widely held belief that the world should never again turn its back on mass violence against a people. However, it is the misuse of this third pillar that has caused more consternation than any other.

Russia used this pillar as a part of its justification for invading Georgia in 2008. The Kremlin argued that it invoked the third pillar in an effort to protect its people and other ethnic Russians against what was perceived as genocide. The UN denied this as any grounds for justification of a military invasion. While the Georgian government forces had been sparring with separatists and illegally armed groups for some time by August 2008, the international community widely recognized that diplomacy was far more effective than any military response.

Despite this, Russia has continued to use their false interpretation of the third pillar as a basis from which to launch multiple other campaigns in violation of international law and norms. Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic have since, and continue to, suffer under the weight of the Kremlin’s advances. In addition to sovereign Georgia, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been in the crosshairs for some time.

Russia routinely plants deep-cover teams against and puppet entities inside these nations in order to create a pro-Putin minority. Through false information campaigns and the manipulation or subversive hijacking of media outlets, they are able to drive the split between the local nationals and their new “Russified” base.

The near future and the next attempt to seize back their lost Soviet lands will almost assuredly contain these efforts, and more. Russia has already begun to potentially incorporate one of these new tactics: land grabbing masked as peacekeeping. The sight of the infamous “MC” markings are now ubiquitous in the recently contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Now in Ukraine, the use of this necessity to protect what it sees as an oppressed people is trying to be sold again. Terms like “denazification” and “liberation” are being peddled in an attempt to frame the invasion as a means of bettering the region. Additionally, the use of Soviet WWII (or Great Patriotic War as the Russians call it) victory motifs have become a symbol of the “righteous fight.”

When territory is taken, as seen in the recently captured Kherson area, new People’s Republics are being set up. These also act as a protectorate that will likely need to be “defended” by the Kremlin from Western and Ukrainian influences. When questioned, Moscow frames their action as this inherent responsibility to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed.

Russian officials genuinely believe they are the force for good, though likely only for so long as the Kremlin bankroll continues to fill their accounts. Thile it still is only rumor and speculation, there are the rumblings of discontent within Putin’s inner circle. Whether this is true or not can only be unveiled in time.

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