20 years under Putin: a timeline

The crisis in Syria has one again raised the question of whether and when international humanitarian interventions are justified. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek notes that the “sovereignty” argument is most often used by regimes that wish to oppress and murder their own citizens.



Humanitarian intervention is a complex topic. Is it appropriate to interfere in another country’s affairs in order to stop crimes against humanity, military crimes, or genocide? Where is the borderline between humanitarian intervention and common aggression? These questions are by no means rhetorical; the international community has to deal with them almost every year.

International law obviously provides a legislative framework for such issues, although this area of law is still in its infancy, since even the strictest international laws are not enforced. A villainous regime cannot be thrown in prison, and one cannot penalize a government that does not want to pay. The only realistic enforcement measure is a military operation. This is what I will discuss here.

Any discussion of the appropriateness of using military force usually has two sides: that of the “world police,” represented by a coalition of countries, and that of a country “offender.” The role of each side is rather clear and does not need to be explained. Both sides have their own supporting forces, represented by countries that are not involved in military operations but help create the public atmosphere and the corresponding diplomatic context.

Countries that support presumptuous dictatorships have strongly pronounced political characteristics, since they are worried that they might themselves become victims of the “world police.” Such countries have similar systems based on police and legal abuse and suppression of civil liberties.

These countries invariably offer the same formal arguments against humanitarian intervention, which consist in the protection of state sovereignty and nonintervention in domestic affairs. This stance is akin to that of the drunkard or the troublemaker who demands that no one interfere with him in terrorizing his relatives, because such things are his family’s private business. This argument usually has little effect on the police, however.

International relations are more complicated. The international community’s weakness consists not only in the absence of indisputable international laws and enforcement measures, but also in the fact that it is hard to eradicate the widespread belief that every state has the right to do anything—or almost anything—that it chooses with its people. Only in extreme cases, when public opinion considers further inaction to be outrageous and inadmissible, does the international community (or individual countries) decide to take drastic measures.

This is what happened in 1979 when France conducted the “Barracuda” military operation in the Central African Empire to depose Emperor Bokassa, who had been caught engaging in cannibalism. In 1991, a U.S.-led multinational force representing more than forty countries used a UN mandate to stop Iraq’s military aggression against Kuwait (even the USSR supported that intervention). In 1999, a NATO military operation put an end to the genocide of Kosovar Albanians in Yugoslavia. In 2003, coalition forces from five states conducted Operation Iraqi Freedom, which resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime.

In the two latter cases, military intervention was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council, which provided supporters of despotic regimes with an opportunity to talk about the illegality of military actions. That opportunity, however, was created by these same states—Russia and China used their veto power to deliberately obstruct any attempts by the UN Security Council to legalize a humanitarian intervention. In the late 1990s, Russia’s autocratic tendencies became noticeable, and since the beginning of the 2000s, these tendencies have prevailed over all the others. This is why it is unsurprising that the Kremlin considers countries that were included in the “axis of evil” as either potential or actual allies.

Moscow’s position with regard to the Syrian crisis serves as an example of how this attitude has become the basis of its foreign policy. The Kremlin has obstructed any attempts by the UN Security Council to force Bashar al-Assad to cease war against his own people; if, or when, Western countries decide to recur to humanitarian intervention in circumvention of the Security Council, the same Kremlin will likely roar with all its might that the interference in Syrian domestic affairs without a UN sanction is a violation of international law.

Politicians who justify the government’s unlimited right to oppress its own citizens are concerned with questions of sovereignty. The oppressed themselves are indifferent to this issue.

In all these international legal discussions, nobody is interested in the opinion of the victims of tyrannical regimes. These people are not present on the world stage. At best, they can express their opinion in the independent media. It happens, however, that society and the media do not give due consideration to genuine large-scale tragedies and only tend to start talking about them when it is already too late. This is what happened in Vietnam after the withdrawal of American forces in the mid-1970s.

People whom dictators condemn to death for the sake of some made-up supreme state interests do not care about the protection of state sovereignty. They realize that this sovereignty is only used in order to kill them with impunity and with the acquiescence of the international community. Also, in my opinion, they do not really understand the doubts that then–UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan talked about in his Millennium Report in 2000. Recalling the failures of the Security Council to act in a decisive manner in Rwanda and Kosovo, he addressed member states with the following question: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”

Politicians who justify the government’s unlimited right to oppress its own citizens are concerned with questions of sovereignty. The oppressed themselves are, to put it mildly, indifferent to this issue. Almost a million people killed over three months in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide probably would not have cared who would have invaded the country to stop the mass slaughter of the Tutsis. One hundred eighty thousand Iraqi Kurds killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces (including those killed by genocidal poison gas attacks) would have probably welcomed military intervention by Western countries aimed at overthrowing the regime of the Baghdad butcher. Millions of North Koreans dying from hunger and the cruelest repressions would consider the question of correlation between state sovereignty and right to humanitarian intervention a travesty.

If the survival of such a large number of people depends on the subtleties of international law, then this law is worthless. Globalization, which has become the main geopolitical process of the twenty-first century, cannot develop only along economic, financial, and cultural lines. Its demand for a global and balanced approach to security problems concerning not only states but also the citizens of these states is increasingly urgent. The question of respect for human rights should take center stage among the host of developing issues of globalization. Otherwise, globalization will not succeed; it will remain a fiction for democracies and a scarecrow for dictatorships. This is why Kofi Annan’s question can be considered rhetorical. Such questions are for politicians and diplomats, who try to keenly detect global tendencies and to follow them carefully. For people who live under the oppression of a dictatorship, this question sounds ridiculous, and the answer to it is obvious.

A saying has been popular in Russian prisons since the Stalin era: “Let war come so one can yield oneself prisoner.” The multi-million-member Gulag population wished that somebody would come and destroy Stalin’s tyranny. Maybe this explains the unbelievable number of Soviet soldiers—more than 5 million— who fell prisoner during the Second World War. This might also be the reason why up to 800,000 people fought in General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army and other similar units under German command against Stalin’s USSR.

Victims of dictatorial regimes do not care who saves them from impending death. Sometimes, in order to triumph over a dictatorship, they are prepared to cooperate with anyone who is willing to lend them a helping hand. It is very good if help is offered by sincere supporters of freedom and democracy. And it is even better if that help does not come too late.