Squaring Russia's foreign policy rhetoric with its actions


When Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing nearly 300 people, Ukraine pointed the finger of blame at Russia. Kiev accused the Kremlin of providing military support to pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian government, including the missile system they said had been used to down the plane.

Now, Dutch authorities say they’ve uncovered conclusive evidence that the missiles came from a Russian anti-aircraft missile brigade (The Guardian).

“All the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces,” said Wilbert Paulissen of the Joint Investigation Team (BBC). Paulissen made the announcement at a news conference in the Dutch city of Utrecht on Thursday, saying the Russian-made Buk missile that destroyed the plane was supplied by Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade based in Kursk.

At the time of the incident, Ukraine and its allies said the downing of MH17 was simply the most egregious violation of Ukrainian sovereignty by Russia, which fit into a larger pattern of Moscow disregarding its neighbors’ borders when convenient (Vox). Georgia and Ukraine, both post-Soviet nations bordering Russia, have also decried what they say are systematic violations of their own sovereignty and territorial integrity by Moscow.

Russian rhetoric on state sovereignty

Russia has steadfastly denied involvement in the MH17 incident. And its leaders routinely emphasize the country’s foreign policy is based on a commitment to recognizing state sovereignty.

“The world order is threatened by arbitrary interpretation of such essential principles as … respect for [the] sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and non-interference in their domestic affairs,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN General Assembly in 2012, referring to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (Russia at the UN).

In a 2012 RT article, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote, “a string of armed conflicts under the pretext of humanitarian concerns has undermined the principle of national sovereignty.”

The Kremlin regularly denounces Western airstrikes on Syrian government targets as violations of its ally Syria’s sovereignty (Deutsche Welle).

While Russian claims of an abiding respect for state sovereignty may strike many Western observers as implausible, if not ludicrous, Russia has been identified by others as a defender of international borders.

While noting Russia’s assent to UN intervention in Libya in 2011 that marked the beginning of the end of the Moammar Gadhafi regime, a 2013 report issued by the European Parliament’s Policy Department identified “a wariness in Russia … about compromising on the fundamental priorities of national sovereignty and ensuring that UN peacekeeping operations are only imposed with the consent of the host government.”

According to Anton Barbashin, editorial director of Riddle, a Lithuania-based journal that says it “provides independent, balanced analysis on Russia,” national sovereignty has been emphasized in Russia’s foreign policy rhetoric since the Yugoslav Wars of the late 1990s.

Russian incursions into sovereign states

So, does Russia’s foreign policy represent a genuinely principled defense of state sovereignty – one also influenced by the large number of U.S. military bases near its own borders? Or is its emphasis on national sovereignty merely a convenient rhetorical instrument through which to advance Russian interests?

Ukraine and Georgia, two countries bordering Russia, accuse Russia of systematically violating their sovereignty, even as it chides Western nations for violating Syria’s.

According to Ukraine, Russia occupies three territories under its sovereignty (UNHCR): the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, and the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, controlled by pro-Russian statelets.

Georgia says the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have claimed independence since the 1990s, are under Russian occupation (Government of Georgia).

Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after which Moscow recognized both regions as independent nations. The separatist authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, established following the 2014 Russian military incursion into Ukraine, remain unrecognized by Russia. The governments of Ukraine and Georgia point to close links between breakaway authorities and Moscow, arguing the entities act as de facto extensions of Russia that compromise their neighbors’ sovereignty (The Atlantic).

Links between Russia and separatist governments in Georgia have grown closer following the annexation of Crimea. In 2017, Putin pledged to guarantee Abkhazia’s “security, self-sufficiency and independence,” following an earlier decision to incorporate the armed forces of South Ossetia into the Russian army’s command structure (Reuters).

Georgia calls Russia’s actions in the region “creeping annexation,” which they fear will ultimately culminate in “legal” annexation (Reuters).

Russian support for the breakaway regions of Ukraine, meanwhile, varies in scope. Moscow claimed in 2015 that Crimea had been “fully integrated” (International Business Times) into Russia, but the Kremlin’s support for the rebel authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk has remained largely covert since the 2014 war broke out (The Economist).

Moscow rejects claims that it occupies Georgian territory, and denies direct involvement in eastern Ukraine (Washington Post).

Russian strategy of ‘passportification’

An important way in which opponents of Russia allege it undermines its neighbors’ sovereignty is a process they label “passportization,” according to the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Agnia Grigas, author of Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, told WikiTribune Russia offers passports to people in contested regions, thereby “giving the Kremlin a certain legitimacy in protecting these newly minted Russian citizens.” In turn, this allows Russia to “extend its sovereignty beyond its borders,” a process that necessarily comes at the expense of the sovereignty of countries bordering Russia.

Moscow grants Russian passports to most residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Der Spiegel). During the 2008 war with Georgia, this allowed then-president Dimitry Medvedev to claim he was required “under the constitution and federal law … [to] protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are,” justifying military intervention within Georgia’s borders (Reuters).

In 2017, Moscow began recognizing documents issued by rebel governments of Donestk and Luhansk, prompting fears of renewed passportization in eastern Ukraine (Atlantic Council). Years before the invasion of Crimea, the Ukrainian government had already been warning of a “general Russian passportization” in the province, a process that culminated in the full takeover of the region (The New York Times).

Soviet hangover

Russia plays by different rules within the borders of the former Soviet Union, says Russian journalist Barbashin. He says the Kremlin sees a responsibility to protect its new citizens in an “almost identical manner” to Western nations in the Middle East. Accordingly, the Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, told WikiTribune that his government had been forced to intervene in Crimea to protect a population of Russian speakers “afraid for their freedom and security” from a government guilty of “violating human rights in Ukraine.”

To critics, Moscow’s violations of its neighbors’ sovereignty reflects double standards and little more than a consistent desire to advance its own interests.

“Russia calls for respect of sovereignty on the international stage – especially for authoritarian regimes such as its own, Syria’s, and Iraq’s – yet has been challenging the sovereignty of its neighbors since the end of the Cold War and before,” Grigas said.

Ruth Deyermond, a lecturer in post-Soviet security at King’s College London, authored a 2016 paper addressing the apparent inconsistency between Russia emphasizing national sovereignty in its foreign policy, even as it treats its post-Soviet neighbors’ borders as porous. According to Deyermond, Russia treats its neighbors similarly to the way it did under the Soviet Union, when 15 formally sovereign republics were joined in federal union.

“The Soviet constitution nominally recognized the sovereignty of its constituent republics, including their right to secede and their sovereign authority on a number of policy areas,” Deyermond wrote. “In practice, however, the republics had little sovereignty.

“In significant ways, this conception of republic sovereignty as nominal but not actual persisted in the relations between Moscow and the former republics.”

Despite all of this, Russia says violations of sovereignty can only be permitted under a UN Security Council resolution. Ambassador Yakovenko points to the lack of UN Security Council resolutions as justification for his country’s position that Western airstrikes on Syria contravene international law.

“On the last strikes against Syria state in Douma, there was no decision of the UN Security Council … that’s why we believe that, in this case, the decision was illegal,” Yakovenko told WikiTribune in response to a series of questions addressed to him at a press conference.

The UN Security Council has not passed resolutions permitting military intervention in Georgia or Ukraine.

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