Russia Is Defending International Law
Russia's position in the Syrian Conflict
By Finn Andreen
particular role in the Syrian conflict is interesting because it
reveals the geopolitical reality in which Russia's foreign
policy takes shape.
Despite occasional incendiary remarks by President Putin,
Russia's official position in this conflict has been one of
constancy and moderation, in sharp contrast with the volatile
and aggressive positions of the US, France and others. In
particular, Russia has clearly taken on the role of defending
and “protecting international law,” as President Putin wrote in
an unprecedented op-ed, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,”
published on Sept. 11th in the New York Times. The word “law”
was mentioned no less than seven times in the article; upholding
international jurisprudence is obviously of very high priority
In answer to the United States and France's openly stated
intention of bombing Syria, Russian officials have constantly
repeated the importance of not violating Chapter VII of the UN
Charter, concerning acts of aggression. President Putin also
mentioned this point in
his New York Times article::
“Under current international law, force is permitted only in
self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.
Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter
and would constitute an act of aggression.”
None of this should come as a surprise, since this was also
Russia's position with regard to the illegal bombing of Serbia
by NATO in 1999, as well as the illegal invasion of Iraq by a
coalition led by the US and the UK in 2003.
It seems clear, therefore, that upholding international law is a
fundamental principle of Russian foreign policy. Such an
unwavering and principled position would be admirable for a
nation-state, were it not for the fact that Russia adopts this
position not because of a high moral standard but out of
necessity. There are two reasons for this.
On the one hand, Russia is one of only a handful of nations in
the world to have a truly independent foreign policy. Apart from
the United States, only China, India, Iran and Russia (and
perhaps one or two others) are impervious to foreign pressure
when acting on the international stage. This is certainly not
the case of Western nations, as their timid and muted reactions
even to the most egregious behaviour by the United States make
clear (the Assange and the Snowden affairs are good recent
indications of their subservience to Uncle Sam).
On the other hand, Russia cannot disregard international law;
only the United States can do that. Russia therefore has an
interest in convincing the USA (and its allies) to follow
international law, according to the principle that a weak nation
benefits more than a strong one when commonly agreed rules are
followed by all. The strongest nation, currently the United
States, is naturally always tempted to violate international
law, simply because it can generally do so with impunity. This
explains why the United States constantly feels constrained by
the international law to which it is bound, and why it does not
recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Russia's position on the Syrian conflict reflects these
geopolitical realities. Russia's political independence gives it
a freedom of action denied to all but a few countries in the
world. However, Russia must use this freedom to insist on the
importance of upholding international law, and to try to
convince the US (and its allies) not to violate it. At this
moment, Russia seems to have succeeded in doing this, but only
time will tell if this success will last.
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