Putin’s wager: Russia’s rogue authoritarianism versus fundamental human rights and the existing international political and legal order

In a fatal error, Putin challenges the modern postwar international political and legal order

It is historicly ironic, and from Vladimir Putin’s point of view perhaps tragic, that Russia’s crowning achievement at the Sochi Winter Games culminated precisely when the Yanukovych government in the Ukraine began to stumble and fall. On the other hand, Putin had only himself to blame.

Since then, Vladimir Putin has overreached, and made the fatal mistake of undertaking actions that put Russia permanently at odds with the world’s international political, legal and economic order.

While formally created during and at the end of World War II (1939-1945), the system has roots that go back to Hugo Grotius and the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648. The idea for the United Nations can be traced back to the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, and the Covenant of the League of Nations and the founding of the League in 1919.

Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the system of international law established within the framework of the United Nations Charter, including its bedrock principle prohibiting the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, has become the very fabric of international society, constituting principles that have been repeatedly accepted in countless treaties and agreements as binding norms of international law by virtually every country.

Now along comes Russia’s new Dictator to suppress within Russia fundamental human rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to a fair trial; to challenge the entire structure of the existing international political and legal order by invading the Ukraine, seizing the Crimea by military force and annexing it to Russia; and now threatening to invade the eastern Ukraine if the government of that country responds to Russia’s initial invasion by special forces and seizure of government buildings by force with its own necessary and legal use of force to reassert its control over its own government offices and territory.

Putin wants Russia to be able to invade the eastern Ukraine with special forces, and then to be able to decry any attempt by the Ukrainian government to restore public order as “crimes” against the Ukrainian constitution. He does so without mentioning his own crimes against the Russian constitution by suppressing civil liberties, or his own use of brutal force in putting down the rebellion in Chechnya–which included the commission of war crimes on a very large scale.

Putin and his lieutenant, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, accuse the Ukraine and the West of violating international law, as they sit on the spoils of Russian aggression in the Crimea, and openly threaten military intervention in the Eastern Ukraine if that country’s government moves with force to restore public order and the ordinary functioning of government institutions.

Like the case of Northern Cyprus, invaded by Turkey in 1967, or East Timor which was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975, Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea will never be accepted by other nations.

Nor will any further conquests in the eastern Ukraine, or of independent countries which formerly made up the Soviet Union, ever be recognized.

An invasion of the eastern Ukraine will indeed produce results, just not those Putin in his demented shortsightedness seeks to secure.

An immediate result will be stiffer sanctions from the U.S. and the EU, which moreover are likely to grow in intensity over time.

An invasion is highly likely to produce permanent enmity toward Russia in the Ukraine, and to strengthen the desire of Ukrainians, East and West, to join the European Union and, if necessary to protect their independence in the future, to join NATO as well (whatever time may be required to achieve this result).

An invasion is also likely to produce energetic responses from NATO aimed at Russia, if not immediately then at least over the intermediate term. To counter potential Russian aggression, large forces of American and other NATO-country troops are likely to eventually be moved from Germany to forward bases in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The current drawdown of American forces from Europe, in time, could be reversed.

Europe will probably also undertake vigorous policies to reduce its consumption of Russian gas and oil, though this may take a few years.

Putin’s wager is that his domestic repression and suppression of freedom of the press, free elections, the right to a fair trial and other fundamental human rights will be a model others will want to emulate, or at least be willing to ignore.

His wager that wars of aggression involving military invasions and the annexation of conquered territories will not matter to other countries, which will be happy to look the other way and continue doing business with Russia, is not likely to be successful in the middle or long term.

To be sure, the slowness with which democracies respond to military challenges may appear to be acqiescence or appeasement in the short term, but in the intermediate to longer term the combined economic and military strength of the U.S., NATO, Japan and their allies will be able to contain Russian military expansionism while depriving Russia of vital opportunities to join the first ranks of nations in a wired and interconnected world.

Finally, Putin’s wager overlooks the vital forces within Russia itself, symbolized by courageous dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, or even Communist party leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. These forces have visions of Russia that are deeply at odds with Putin’s embodiment of autocratic dictatorship at home, and wars of aggression abroad.

Putin’s wager may in fact hasten the day when his greatest fears are realized, the day the Maidan comes to Red Square.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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