The dangers of the Putin Doctrine

The international community must stop Russia’s president from destabilizing world order

March 5, 2014 7:00AM ET
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, center, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, far left, arriving at the Kirillovsky training ground in the Leningrad region to watch military exercises, March 3, 2014.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

In occupying Ukraine’s southernmost province, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has simultaneously invaded a neighboring country that poses no security threat to Russia, unilaterally declared that he has a carte blanche to invade any country with a Russian population and even invited rogue states to develop nuclear weapons.

This new Putin Doctrine threatens to undermine the entire global order. His insistence that he is entitled to violate international law for the pursuit of his own ends is nothing less than a megalomaniacal claim that could, if implemented systematically, produce a world war.

Putin justified his invasion of democratic Ukraine on two counts. First, he claimed that Russians were being threatened by Ukrainian extremists and that their lives were in danger. There is no shred of evidence of such a threat. Quite to the contrary, Ukraine’s Russians have repeatedly stated that they do not need Putin’s protection. Indeed, even Putin’s own Human Rights Council concluded on March 2 that there “were no victims and wounded among the civilian population and soldiers” of Crimea.

Perhaps because the grounds for an intervention were preposterous, Russia then argued on March 3 that it intervened because Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s former president, requested that it do so. Russia continues to recognize Yanukovich, even though he lost all his legitimacy in the course of four years of mercilessly exploiting Ukraine and its population (the Ukrainian Treasury is empty, and the country is bankrupt, thanks to Yanukovich), committed crimes against humanity during the mass violence against the demonstrators in Kiev (almost 100 civilians were killed) and abandoned his office when he fled the country.

Even more destabilizing than the invasion of Crimea was Putin’s claim that he had the right to march into “the territory of Ukraine” in defense of Russian citizens. Here’s the entire statement of his request to Russia’s Council of the Federation, which immediately granted him his wishes:

In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots, the personnel of the military contingent of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed on the territory of Ukraine (Autonomous Republic of Crimea) in accordance with international agreement; pursuant to Article 102.1 (d) of the constitution of the Russian Federation, I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of  Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalized. (emphasis added)

The logic at the base of this extraordinary claim, which stands in violation of every international norm, enables Putin to invade not just Ukraine but any state with a Russian population. And since it is up to Putin to define a “threat” to Russians and to determine when the “situation” is “normalized,” he has in effect given himself a carte blanche to send troops to Georgia (where he intervened in 2008 on behalf of South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — in other words, into any country of the former Soviet space. Small wonder that Estonian officials have reacted with special alarm. They know their country, with a Russian population that accounts for almost a third of the total population, could easily be next. 

The Putin Doctrine has transformed Russia into a rogue state that should be treated accordingly.

Finally, by invading and occupying Ukraine, in violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Putin has signaled to rogue states with nuclear ambitions that they are free to develop them in violation of international norms. In that agreement, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity by the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. By violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Russia has effectively denounced the Budapest Memorandum and its broader message that the nuclear powers will protect states that willfully disarm. As a result, there is no reason that a rogue states with nuclear aspirations should take the threats or assurances of nuclear states seriously.

The Putin Doctrine places Russia and Russia’s interests above those of the international community and world peace. In effect, it has transformed Putin’s Russia into a rogue state that should be treated accordingly. Every state near or bordering Russia must recognize that its security and integrity could be on the line if Putin gets away with his assault on Ukraine. By the same token, the international community must recognize that the structure of international relations could collapse if Putin succeeds. If the international community fails to act, it will be inviting further expansion, further aggression, and quite possibly war — by Russia and by states emboldened by Putin’s impudence. Russia’s violations of the international order should be of particular concern to the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia, which, like Ukraine, suffered decades of imperial rule and understand quite well the importance — as well as the fragility — of internationally accepted principles of nonaggression, sovereignty and inviolability of borders.

Although the Security Council cannot take forceful measures due to the certainty of a Russian veto, the United Nations General Assembly has the authority to act. As Humboldt University’s Christian Tomuschat points out:

On 3 November 1950, the General Assembly adopted resolution 377 A (V), which was given the title “Uniting for Peace” … The most important part of resolution 377 A (V) is section A which states that where the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the General Assembly shall seize itself of the matter … To date, 10 emergency special sessions have been convened. The first one took place on the occasion of the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt and the British-French attack on the Suez Canal zone; the 10th emergency special session, dealing with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, started in 1997 and has not yet come to its end …

As Tomuschat notes, the resolution empowers Third World states:

The seventh emergency special session on Palestine (1980–1982) was in fact initiated by Senegal, the eighth emergency special session on Namibia (1981) goes back to a request by Zimbabwe, and the 10th emergency special session was solicited by Qatar as the chair of the Group of Arab States at the United Nations. It stands to reason that in such instances the overwhelming weight of Third World countries can manifest itself to its full extent.

In other words, the international community need not sit idly on the sidelines and watch Putin destroy the foundations of international order. It can consider taking important measures within the U.N. framework to stop Russian aggression before the crisis leads to war in Ukraine, resulting in thousands of dead, and before Russian land grabs in the former Soviet republics destabilize Eurasia. 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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