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International Law

South China Sea Dialogue 2019

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Centre for Security Studies, O P Jindal Global University organized (November 29) an international conference on the topic ‘The South China Sea: Current Challenges and Future Perspective’ at India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. During the conference presentations were made by 14 eminent scholars from different think tanks and universities of India and attended by more than 50 scholars, academics, media persons, and students.

While giving the introductory remarks Dr. Pankaj Jha, coordinator of the conference and Centre for Security Studies said that the purpose is to highlight the evolving dynamics in the South China / East Vietnam sea, and how it would have an impact on great power politics as well as the faith on the international maritime order. He clearly said that the time has come for the international community to take note of the developments in SCS and work out a feasible solution protecting interest of smaller nations. In his opening address Professor Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs said that the policy of US president while referring to his newly released book ‘Trumped’ talked about post US international order and gave a detailed description about how the Beijing led order would be a problem for the international community. He exhorted the scholars and academics to raise the issue in every forum to highlight the problems and cautioned that US has to commit itself to international responsibilities rather than asking for a raise for the costs of stationing US troops in Korea and Japan. He said the all UNSC permanent members should take cognizance of the developments and call a meeting of UNSC to highlight the need to take precautionary measures.

The draft COC need to be finalized without compromising on the rights of smaller nations such as Vietnam. Professor Brahma Chellaney said that Vietnam’s response to Chinese activities in Vanguard bank need to be noted and lauded. He said that despite dismal and minimum support from international community, Vietnam saw to it that its EEZ and its maritime interests are not hampered and put up a strong resistance to China. He said that the global community needs more action, and commitment to the cause otherwise the world will witness that the South China Sea might turn into a Beijing lake. He said that China has created a reclaimed area equivalent to Washington DC in the SCS region, and it would take lot of ammunition to flatten the reclaimed land. For a free Indo-Pacific Vision, South China Sea is the critical connector. The attention that should be given to the region should be more from India also as the effect would be effect in Indian Ocean also. The military activities and also demarcation of illegal maritime zones by China means that it would become completely under Chinese control. He said that Exxon Mobil a US company is planning to withdraw from South China Sea, and it means that US influence is incrementally eroding. The withdrawal of Exxon Mobil would mean that the company is not sure of US support for its exploration activities.

In the first session of the conference, Dr. Rajaram panda, the Governing Council member ofICWA of Ministry of External Affairs supported think tank said that the time has come to limit Chinese assertive postures and undertake deep thinking so that the increasing Chinese activities can be curbed, and China must comply with international rules and regulations. He said that the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to which China is a signatory need to be revised and amended so that threat or use of force should be seen as an act of aggression by any dialogue partner. He said that there are a number of issues involved in the strategic sea lanes and it needs ASEAN activism to address these issues so that the ASEAN multilateral organization stay relevant for its members. 

Dr Vijay Sakhuja said that while maritime domain awareness and standard operating procedures need to be framed in the context of South China Sea, the challenge is to create marine domain awareness also which is more about undersea minerals, and other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the debate is about maritime zones not the huge resources which exists and for which China has started exploration and research activities taking non-contentious zones as its domain. Oliver Gonsalves of NMF, an Indian Navy think tank said that the oil exploration activities and legitimate research activities has been thwarted by Chinese naval activities and many nations have withdrawn from the EEZ of the claimant states with the exception of China. Chinese dominance in strategic sea lanes have an impact on international trade and commerce and also marine life as well as fishing activities. Dr Faisal Ahmed, said that there are economic aspects of Chinese activities and proposed that the coastal countries and other partner countries can engage in joint exploration, knowledge sharing, and mutual capacity building in this area.

Moreover, fisheries in SCS accounts for an estimated 12 per cent of the global fish catch. It is however likely to witness a decline owing to the damaging coral reefs caused due to artificial islands and installations. The marine ecosystem is becoming gradually vulnerable, which is a serious cause of concern. Dr. Nguyen Ba Cuong, from Scientific Research Institute of Sea & Islands, Vietnam, highlighted Vietnam’s Perspective on Developments in the SCS and said that China has dispatched a ship for a months-long seismic survey, together with armed escorts, into Tu Chinh–Vung May Basin along with its continued harassments with Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in Nam Con Son Basin since June, whichever is all well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. These and other developments underscored the increasing violations of China on its neighbors’ EEZ and continental shelves and just how critical managing and resolving tensions in the South China Sea are, for Vietnam and for region. He said that the international community needs to take note of Chinese expansionism, the power of international law in securing the rule-based international system, and the effective balance of power which is essential for maintaining the law and order in the Indo-Pacific region.

Chairing the second session, Brigadier (Dr.) Vinod Anand, Research Director, Vivekananda International Foundation said that the resolution of SCS is important for the safety and security of the maritime trade and commerce and in case it is not resolved under certain international guidelines then the situation would become grim and alarming. Navy Captain(Dr.) Sarabjeet Parmar, Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation opined that the South China Sea is host to multiple case studies revolving round power dynamics, rules-based order, sovereignty of islands, and the interpretation, respect, and adherence to international law. The tribunal ruling on the Philippines-China case can be viewed as a landmark judgment, which unfortunately cannot be enforced as UNCLOS works on the principle of global acceptability. He underlined and analyzed critical aspects that are germane to sovereignty, international laws and related aspects vis-à-vis the South China Sea.

Ms. Sana Hashmi, ex- consultant MEA said that over the years, China has strived to enhance its naval capabilities in the region, and a major objective behind this naval expansion is to reinforce its sovereignty claims on the South China Sea. The Chinese claims, based on arguably dubious historical precedents, are challenged by a number of countries in the region. So far, some of the claimants involved have maintained strong uncompromising positions. It has internal political dynamics involved in its international posturing. Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh from IDSA said major powers reacted to the South China Sea developments differently. As pointed out by a Chatham House study, while the leadership of Australia, India and Japan, respectively, do not have common views on China, they agree that China must be managed. Neither India, nor indeed Japan or Australia would like to see the relationship with China as a zero sum game. The U.S. takes no position on competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and has not signed UNCLOS. But the US does encourage all countries to uphold international law, including the

Law of the Sea as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, and to respect unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and over flight, and peaceful dispute resolution.

DrXuan Vinh Vo from Vietnam opined that ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2012 failed to release the communique due to the disagreement over the South China Sea dispute. After the release of a separate statement on the current developments in the South China Sea in the wake of China’s illegal deployment of oil rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf in 2014, ASEAN’s cooperative spirit has continued to decrease. Although expressing the grouping’s position, phrases such as ‘some leaders’, and ‘some ministers’ have appeared in chairman’s statements and joint communiques in recently instead of ‘leaders’ or ‘ministers’ as it used to be. The process of COC negotiation process has heavily effected by Chinese approach, especially close economic relations between China and some ASEAN member states. It is difficult for ASEAN and China to reach a legally binding COC in 2021 as scheduled.

Presiding over the last session of the Conference Dr.Jyoti MPathania, Senior Fellow of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) an Indian Army think tank, said that there is a need to look for possible solutions of this problem and the international community will have to undertake the task of bringing order in the region. General Shashi Asthana from United Service Institution (USI) said that while much has been said about Quad in strategic circles but SCS is the possible theater where the utility of this grouping can be explored. However, it has its limitations. It can be put to tests through group sail and joint exercises. Undertaking surveillance activities and enforcing order through military means should be an option. There are chances of flare up but then the Quad members will have to activate their international standing to force China to comply with international maritime order.

Rudroneel Ghosh, Assistant Editor, Times of India said the South China Sea (SCS) has been in media limelight in recent years due to China’s aggressive activities in the region. Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing some of them to bolster its claims over the entire SCS area. This, despite the fact that its so-called Nine-Dash Line cartographical claim was rejected in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case brought by the Philippines. He cautioned that there is also a tendency to view the SCS issue exclusively through the prism of China and a matter between China and Southeast Asian nations. And this can be counterproductive to sustaining international media attention on the SCS, which is necessary to evolve a consensus-based architecture in line with international law.

Dr.Sripathi Narayanan said the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and Indo-Pacific region symbolises the shift in the global centre of gravity from the Euro-centric Atlantic order to the Asian landmass. The prevailing contestation is not only confined to hegemony and power politics but also scripting the discourse on the global order. While the MSR, as a subset of the BRI is a political articulation stemming out of infrastructure projects, the Indo-Pacific is a reverse, wherein the political posturing is yet to fructify in any visible form.

In his concluding remarks Dr. Pankaj Jha said China’s assertive postures and threatening tactics that it has adopted with India’s oil exploration initiatives and also Indian naval ships have been intimidated through radio messages in the past. Given the fact that South China Sea, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits are areas of secondary maritime interest from India but Chinese actions to demarcate the non-contentious area also as disputed zones would add to India’s problems. The Chinese dominance in South China Sea would trickle down in Indian Ocean also and therefore India will have to make tactical and strategic choices to constrain Chinese actions in the region.He said that there is a need for dialogue partners dialogue on the subject while keeping ASEAN in the loop. There is a need for elevating East Asia Summit for more proactive role in the region.

The rapporteurs to the conference presented the findings and the summary report of the presentations by Srimal Fernando

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International Law

A State as Civilisation and Political Theory

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The new concept of Russia’s foreign policy, unexpectedly for many, introduced the concept of a state-civilisation in official use. Its appearance may be the beginning of a change in the conceptual framework of Russian foreign policy thinking. Moreover, the changes may both be compared with post-Soviet doctrinal documents and with the basic guidelines of the Soviet period. The new conceptual framework faces serious competition with three major political theories. Here we are talking about the “big three” — liberalism, socialism and conservatism. Each such theory has its own concepts (interpretations) of international relations and foreign policy. A shift towards the notion of civilisation can be an alternative line of thought, which, however, will require careful intellectual elaboration. However, until such a study is completed, realism retains its relevance as the basis of foreign policy.

What is Political Theory?

Political theory is how we understand the system of normative views and ideas and the proper arrangement of power relations; the goals, values and means of domestic and foreign policy. What distinguishes political theory from ideology is the presence of arguments which are open to being criticised and contested. Ideology claims a single and undeniable view. Every theory requires scientific reflection and constant re-examination. An ideology can be derived from a theory, feeding on its concepts and assumptions. However, it cannot replace theory. In the case of such a substitution, the theory becomes unviable. Each political theory is a system of concepts, that is, interpretations of individual key concepts—power, authority, good, freedom, justice, interest, etc. Major political theories offer their interpretations of foreign policy and international relations. They can directly or indirectly set the paradigm of foreign policy and the contours of foreign policy thinking. Three basic political theories have developed in modern political thought: liberalism, socialism and conservatism. They have many variations and branches, which does not prevent their fundamental assumptions from being preserved.

Liberal Theory: From the Rational Individual to the Nation State

Liberal theory can be called rationalistic. It proceeds from the assumption of the power of the human mind, which is capable of taming the manifestations of the worst aspects of human nature – aggression, prejudice, ignorance, selfishness and, as a consequence, the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” By analogy with the taming of the elements of nature with the help of rational technical inventions, the elements of war, violence and other social vices can be brought under control by a rational political order. In liberal political theory, the social contract, embodied in the system of legal institutions of the state, has become a cornerstone concept (although the very concept of a social contract has deeper roots and is not ignored by other theories). Institutions, on the one hand, serve the public good, that is, the reduction of disasters and the growth of wealth. On the other hand, they act in the name of freedom from despotism. Justice is understood in terms of legal norms common to everyone. Accordingly, the source of state sovereignty is the nation as a political community of equal citizens of the state. The nation-state is in many ways a liberal concept that has gradually become the “world standard” for conceptualising the state as such. The nation, as the source of sovereignty and legitimacy of power, delegates power to elected representatives who exercise it in accordance with legal norms. The latter, in turn, are determined through rational procedures that are transparent to citizens. The rational order of the rule of law is a means of controlling internal anarchy and serves to establish a community of citizens with equal rights. Liberation from class boundaries and prejudices is the value and goal of the nation state. Historically, all these provisions had a direct connection with political practice. They became the doctrinal basis of a number of bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to tectonic changes in the nature of states. Huge masses of the population were emancipated, and the usual monarchical and imperial orders collapsed. The liberal doctrine of the nation state retained its influence during the process of decolonisation. The overwhelming majority of new states became republics, adopted constitutions, and declared their peoples to be the source of sovereignty. Often the transition to the nation-state was bloody. It commonly failed to lead, properly, to the achievement of liberal ideals. The energy of revolutionary chaos sometimes gave rise to ugly political forms, nominally called republics, which in fact they were modernised despotisms with formal democratic attributes.

The liberal interpretation of international relations was also rationalistic. International relations are anarchic. There is a “war of all against all” going on within them, which cannot be stopped due to the lack of a monopoly on power and the use of force by one specific country or a community of such countries. This means that anarchy must also be taken under the control of a rational order in the form of international institutions. They must be supported by economic interdependence, which makes wars unprofitable. In addition, the guarantee of peace between peoples is their democratisation. From the liberal perspective, wars are the result of the arbitrariness of elites, which are not controlled by citizens. If they are brought under control by democratic institutions, then there will be fewer wars, or they will disappear altogether. By default, the liberal theory of international relations implies that individual countries can take the lead in solving the problem of anarchy and war. They must be democracies themselves, promote democratisation to others, guarantee the stability of world trade, organise the international community in the form of institutions, and, if necessary, use force against violators of the new order. Liberal political theory has become the framework of US foreign policy thinking, although it has not completely absorbed it. The period of the unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War can be considered the pinnacle of the practical implementation of this doctrine: the United States was the leader of the victorious democratic world, its former rivals, the USSR and the Soviet bloc, sought to join the “world community”, the American-centric globalisation of the economy was gaining momentum, and the United States was the key military power, intervening in conflicts and the affairs of individual states at its own will, while simultaneously playing a crucial role in international institutions, including the UN.

Socialist Theory: Reason vs. Alienation

Socialist theory, like liberal theory, also proceeds from the limitless possibilities of the human mind. However, if liberalism was forged in the struggle against obsolete imperial and monarchical forms, socialism challenged both the old order and liberalism itself. Just like liberalism, socialism postulates the idea of liberation (emancipation) of a person from class orders, religious prejudices and despotic rulers. Socialism is also based on the Enlightenment ideas of rational progress. It would seem that both theories are compatible. But socialism takes aim at an important aspect of the liberal model—the capitalist economy. The bourgeoisie is the engine of liberal revolutions. Properly, it freed the citizens from the oppression of classes and prejudices. Free labour is the basis of the capitalist economy. A citizen is limited only by laws that are adopted on his behalf and on behalf of his equal fellow citizens. Free labour is an atom of the capitalist economy, selling its own labour or buying someone else’s labour at its own discretion, while alienating part of the cost of such labour in its favour. It is either an employee or a capitalist. The difference between the two is that the worker receives stability in the form of a predictable income, but alienates part of his labour to the capitalist. The latter, on the other hand, appropriates the added value, but at the same time takes on the risks of the failure of the capitalist enterprise, because the success of the business model is far from guaranteed.

It was the problem of alienation that became the basis of the socialist critique of liberalism. Not without reason, the socialists pointed to the growth of monopoly capital and its concentration, to the alienation of the labour of huge masses of working people, to the social problems generated by such alienation, to the many crises of the capitalist economies, which left millions unemployed and living in the streets. In international relations, the socialists saw the main problem in the acceleration of imperialism. Big capital merged with state institutions. The developed industrial powers were actively expanding, using, among other things, military force. Capitalism gave a powerful impetus to colonialism. While gradually and unevenly forming democratic institutions at home, the capitalist powers at the same time pursued aggressive policies in their colonies. Like the liberals, the socialists offered a rationalist solution though revolutionary changes to put an end, on the one hand, to the old and obsolete monarchical and class order. On the other hand, they sought to crush the capitalist economy to free the broad masses from the trap of alienation. For international relations, the destruction of capitalism would also mean a solution to the problem of imperialism. The working people have no reason to fight with each other and nothing to share. The solidarity of workers is the basis of peace. The economy would be organised in the form of rational planning and distribution, and the state, amid such conditions, would change its nature to embrace true democracy, or even wither away.

It is symptomatic that among the great powers of the early twentieth century, socialism won its first major victory precisely in Russia. On the one hand, by the beginning of the 20th century, Russia retained political forms that were backward for those times. The demand for political change in favour of greater representation of the people and the rule of law was gathering momentum for most of the 19th century. The authorities understood the threat, but the reforms threatened to cost them control, leading to the complete collapse of the political system. Time after time, reforms were incomplete and episodic. Gaining momentum, capitalism exerted a growing pressure on the political system. At the same time, capitalism itself in Russia was largely peripheral in nature. Russia’s place in the international division of labour was far from optimal. The country remained backward, although the pace of its development at the beginning of the 20th century was amazing. This development, however, was extremely uneven, giving rise to new and potentially dangerous social movements. In the 19th century, the key challenge to power was the small intelligentsia, liberal or socialist in orientation. With all its activity (from the coup attempts by the Decembrists and the opposing nobility to the Narodnaya Volya terrorists), the government successfully suppressed the protests. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the urban proletariat became a revolutionary force. Moreover, its domestic version differed from the Western European one. It was more marginal and socially vulnerable. At the same time, it was more developed in comparison with the overwhelming majority of the peasant population and was receptive to revolutionary ideas. The “labour aristocracy” and the middle class were too small compared to the larger and poorer masses of the proletariat. The number of such masses was constantly growing due to unprecedented population growth, the scarcity of land suitable for efficient agriculture, and the attractiveness of a few industrial cities as a source of income. While remaining a small social group across the country, the concentration of the proletariat in the cities acquired an important political significance. The revolution of 1905 was the first harbinger of the catastrophe awaiting the old order. The revolution of February 1917 brought it down. The revolution of October 1917 put an end to liberal throwing forces by a small, but at the same time organised and motivated group that seized power in the country via a coup. At the same time, the victorious Bolsheviks managed to retain power, relying on the attractiveness and innovation of the ideas of socialism at the time. Vladimir Lenin was undoubtedly its most prominent theoretician. Without their political doctrine, the Bolsheviks would hardly have been able to retain power in the country and make it legitimate. Socialism became a powerful tool for maintaining their control and fundamentally modernising the state. The countries of the capitalist world acquired in the eyes of Russia a most dangerous rival, whose strength was based not only on the power of the resources and demographic base, but also on the advanced political theory and ideology.

Moreover, socialism promised to turn Russia into a modern, and therefore much more powerful state. The danger of Soviet Russia was of an ideological and, as it would turn out, quite material nature.

Conservative Answer

The victorious march of liberalism and socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries naturally gave rise to a conservative response. The key thought of the conservatives was that the human mind is far from being as perfect as it seemed to liberals and socialists. Rational schemes simply don’t work. The price of social experiments manifesting in a series of revolutions and subsequent wars is millions of lost human lives. Institutions must change evolutionarily, not revolutionary. It is impossible to destroy traditions mindlessly, to refuse authorities. Too much freedom is dangerous. Besides, it only exists on paper. In reality, power is seized by bureaucrats, who manipulate the masses at their discretion, on their own behalf. It is simply impossible to manage complex social systems with relying on planning methods – they are too complex. Changes must occur, but very carefully and without excesses. Justice cannot be understood as a rational clockwork.

In foreign policy thinking, conservatism manifested itself in the theoretical doctrine that is commonly called realism. The main thesis is that the anarchic nature of international relations cannot be brought under control by any rational scheme like a general international organisation. It simply will not withstand the pressure of contradictions between the great powers. Controlled anarchy is a harmful delusion. What matters is national interests, which are determined by common sense, not by rational abstraction. The optimal strategy for a state is to prepare for the worst-case scenario, be powerful enough not to be the prey of its neighbours, to negotiate and to compromise if necessary. At the same time, the political structure of states is not taken into account by realists. Both democracies and autocracies have the same predatory instincts in the international arena. To say that democracies do not fight is both duplicitous and hypocritical.

Realism emerged as an influential doctrine between the world wars and especially during the Cold War. In the US, it was bizarrely combined with liberal political theory. Liberalism manifested itself in the form of an ideological canvas, but political decisions were often dictated by the logic of realism. Behind the velvet glove of liberalism was an iron conservative hand. A similar model, albeit with its own characteristics, has developed in the USSR. The Soviet leadership quite quickly, by historical standards, cooled down on the idea of a global revolution and the abandonment of the state system. State interests in the field of security have become a significant driver of policy despite external ideologisation. The Soviet Union built a community of socialist states, but their solidarity also concealed very pragmatic interests.

During the Cold War, realism turned into an unofficial, but at the same time significant conceptual framework for Soviet foreign policy. As the resources of socialist ideology were exhausted, realism objectively became more and more in demand. The crisis of socialist theory in the Soviet Union at the late stage of its existence can be explained by many factors. Among them were the excessive ideologisation of theory, cynicism and growing corruption among the political elite, fear of reforming the political and economic system, its reasonable democratisation and emancipation, the actual replacement of the power of the Soviets by the power of an overly centralised and less effective bureaucracy, and growing frustration and cynicism within society. All this took place against the backdrop of colossal achievements in science, technology, industry, and the solution of many development problems. At the same time, the socialist challenge became a powerful stimulus for the renewal of liberalism. Western countries, including the United States, have introduced a number of elements that are commonly associated with the socialist Soviet experience. Among them are major state social programs, the planning of certain areas of economic development, and the fight against poverty. The collapse of the Soviet Union briefly made ideas of integration into the liberal community the central thought process governing Russia’s foreign policy. This was reflected in Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” and doctrinal documents of the early 1990s. During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia moved away from liberal idealism. Foreign policy thinking was based increasingly on the principles of realism, which were finally consolidated in the Munich speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007.

Nationalism and the Big Three

Speaking of the “big three” political theories, the question arises about the place of nationalism. Is it an independent doctrine? Can nationalism be considered a political theory comparable to the Big Three? We should start with the fact that nationalism is a powerful ideological construction that has manifested itself in the political development of the vast majority of modern states. In some cases, it was based on political principles. In particular, it can be considered a derivative of the liberal idea of the nation as a political community. Nationalism coexisted quite well with socialism through the idea of political representation. The Soviet version of socialism added an ethnic component to the concept of a nation. The Soviet republics were a political representation of large ethnic groups united by common socialist principles. Nationalism also found common ground with conservatism. Historical and cultural traditions became an important source for constructing the identity of many modern nation states; more precisely, they constructed modern interpretations of such traditions. The key difference is that any nationalism is local, while the “big three” political theories are universal. The locality of nationalism does not prevent it from being quietly present even in those states that promote universal ideas. American liberal messianism goes well with American patriotism and a specific local identity. Modern Chinese socialism is also combined with Chinese nationalism, giving rise to socialism with Chinese characteristics. The same could be said about the Soviet Union, which combined the state-sponsored nationalisms of the republics and all-Soviet patriotism. With the Soviet Union, this approach played a cruel joke. The national identities of the new states of the post-Soviet space were carefully prepared by the Soviet leadership itself. In some cases, nationalism has degenerated into ugly forms like fascism or national socialism. The defeat of fascism and Nazism by the Soviet Union and its Western allies was the most important event of the twentieth century, but it did not completely solve the problem. Neo-Nazism makes itself known in the 21st century.

Moment of Unipolarity

After the end of the Cold War, the United States reached the height of its power. It would seem that liberal theory had no alternatives left. Russia had withdrawn from the competition, quickly shedding its liberal illusions and focusing on its pragmatic interests and a realist foreign policy paradigm. China has retained its commitment to socialism with its own national characteristics, but at the same time successfully integrated into the Western-centric global economy. The European Union, despite its economic strength, remained in the liberal paradigm and its variations. India concentrated on its development, relying on its self-sufficient national and cultural bonds. The Islamic world, one way or another, had a religious community, but was not politically consolidated. There was no political consolidation in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. The post-Cold War world seemed unshakable in its unipolarity.

However, the moment of unipolarity did not last long. In the United States itself, an understanding of a possible weakening of their role in the international arena began to take shape as early as the 1990s. There were material factors driving such a weakening. Among them was the economic growth of new centres of power, which sooner or later could be transformed into military power and qualitatively new political ambitions. The limits of US influence on internal processes in a number of states have been outlined. It was possible to turn a blind eye to “rogue states” such as the DPRK or Iran, but the obvious course towards autonomous policymaking in China and Russia could only be met with alarm. At the same time, both China and Russia remained an important part of the US-centric global economy. The big question was what would prevail – the benefits of globalisation or the desire to maintain autonomy and independence, including on fundamental issues of foreign policy? Ultimately, it was China and Russia that emerged as the most dangerous threats to American leadership. Moreover, the threats are not only material, but also ideological.

The growing economic and military power of China, independence in political decision-making, persistence in matters of principle in world politics, and the gradual exit of Chinese diplomacy outside the Asia-Pacific region are only part of the problem for the United States, and not the biggest one. After all, the US remains a major military and technological power with a large pool of allies and the ability to contain China. More importantly, China has adapted its own version of socialist theory to the new realities of international relations. Beijing has formulated a systematic and deeply developed doctrine. It is based on the idea of universal gain, the common destiny of mankind, and overcoming dividing lines and conflicts. China reinforces its ideas with a willingness to promote the development of other countries in the common interest, based on its own experience of successful and comprehensive modernisation. Whether willingly or not, China has created a powerful ideological platform based on socialist theory and its own modernisation experience, which is quite capable of becoming an alternative to the liberal vision of the modern world order.

Russia for a long time avoided formulating such ideas, relying on the principles of realism in foreign policy. However, the very fact that Russia has thrown an open challenge to the United States and its allies in the situation around Ukraine is a significant precedent. If the “Russian rebellion” is not suppressed, the blow to US prestige could be extremely painful. Such a blow would not necessarily bring down the US leadership. However, it can become a factor in its erosion. Combined with other factors, the risks for the US are growing.

At the same time, there are signs Russia is going beyond the usual realism and attempts to find new conceptual foundations of foreign policy. A significant indicator is the appearance in the new Foreign Policy Concept of a state-civilisation. It has the potential to develop further into a more systemic paradigm that is not reducible to the “big three” political theories. However, the path promises to be quite difficult.

Civilisational Approaches

The concept of civilisation has long appeared on the “radar” of political theory. For liberalism and socialism, civilisation is determined by the measure of the dominance of the human mind. The more civilised a society is, the more rationality and progress it has. Such a linear picture divides the world into developed civilised societies and undeveloped uncivilised ones, with a large grey area between them.

There was another approach, considering civilisations as large communities, united within themselves by spiritual and material culture and by no means always reduced to separate states. Civilisation can go far beyond the history of a particular state, and also spatially cover a large number of them. On the other hand, we can also talk about the existence of states-civilisations, such as China or India. But even in this case, their civilisational boundaries are wider than national ones, taking into account the large Chinese and Indian diasporas abroad. In addition, in the bosom of one civilisation there may be different ethnic groups that have similar tribal, civilisational features. This approach assumes the coexistence of several civilizsations at once. In their development, they can go through the stages of birth, flourishing, breaking, decline and death, although such a scenario is not necessarily predetermined. The concept of civilisations was developed by such prominent scientists as Nikolay Danilevsky, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee and many others, and their developments went in parallel with the rapid conceptual development of the Big Three theories, forming, as it were, a parallel intellectual reality.

Civilisational Approach: Benefits

What is the advantage of this approach to international relations? First, the historical depth. Liberalism, socialism and conservatism often operate within a relatively narrow range of historical experience. At best, we are talking about several centuries, although their intellectual roots are much deeper. For civilisational studies, the depth of analysis is hundreds and even thousands of years. The system-forming cultural nodes of individual civilisations were laid long before the era of modernity and still retain their relevance. Second, this approach allows us to go beyond the usual scheme in which the players are nation-states. Obviously, cultural and civilisational motives can act as a factor in international politics, where not only interests but also identities collide. In addition, quite specific civilisational components are used in the national ideology of a number of states. A striking example is the states of the Islamic world. Third, the civilisational view covers both spiritual and material aspects of culture. The nation state is but one of the possible political forms born of the Western civilisation and, in a relatively short period of time, became ubiquitous, but not necessarily definitive.

Civilisational Approach: Disadvantages

There are also obvious disadvantages. First of all, historical depth does not always allow the real influence of distant history on modern politics to be revealed. The political identities of modern states are often artificially constructed. That is, political and intellectual elites choose certain civilisational aspects that correspond to their vision of identity, but just as successfully ignore others. In the same way, the process of constructing the image of a “significant other”, that is, an idea of key rivals or competitors on the world stage, takes place. Such constructs are also biased and do not solve practical and ideological problems. In other words, it would be incorrect to perceive civilisation only from the point of view of culture and history, while losing sight of the construction of culture and history by the elites of modern states. The modern idea of civilisation is not an idea of objectively existing civilisations, which are often politically conditioned.

Another shortcoming is that the civilisational factor plays an extremely contradictory role in explaining peace and war. So, for example, the “Anglo-Saxons” today are united by allied relations and common political interests. But at the beginning of the 20th century, Great Britain seriously considered the scenario of a naval war against the United States. Within the United States itself, in 1861, a civil war broke out between the “Anglo-Saxons”, which claimed more than half a million lives. In 1814, the British burned the White House and many other government buildings in Washington, and a few decades earlier, cultural and civilisational proximity did not help them keep 13 colonies obedient. What can we say about continental Europe, which at the beginning of the 18th century was called a single Christian community, but at the same time stood on the bones of the victims of hundreds of wars between European states, the apotheosis of which were two world wars? The powerful civilisational backlog of the Russian Empire in the form of a common cultural, political and material space did not prevent its collapse. The same is true of the Soviet Union, in which local nationalism at a critical moment in history turned out to be stronger than shared cultural, linguistic, ideological, infrastructural and many other bonds. In the current conflict in Ukraine, the opposing sides facing each other across the front lines are mentally almost the same people. They have similar habits, faith, language, and way of life. However, such proximity does not prevent the interference of nationalism, external forces and specific security interests. There are many such examples.

Another problem is determined by the complexity of combining the concepts of sovereignty and civilisation. The concept of sovereignty was developed in line with rationalist theories and was closely tied to the concept of the nation state. Its attachment to the concept of civilisation is much less obvious. It will work in those cases where the boundaries of civilisation and state more or less coincide. In such cases, albeit at a stretch, the sovereignty of a civilisation can be identified with the sovereignty of a nation. With certain reservations, we are talking about India, China, Japan (if, of course, we consider it a separate civilisation, and not part of the West, which is also undeniable). But what about less obvious cases like Africa, Latin America or the Islamic world? Each of them is home to many states. They have a certain cultural, historical or religious commonality. However, it is not enough for political consolidation. Nation states within such civilisations have different interests, material resources, and local cultures. Since their cultural closeness hardly generates a consolidated and stable political will, one can hardly speak of the sovereignty of civilisation in their relations. It will inevitably become attached to the nation state. If a civilization does not have political subjectivity, then it is very difficult to consider it as an actor in international relations.

The Concept of the State-Civilisation: the Russian Context

Let’s return to Russia. The appearance in the official document of the concept of the state-civilisation brings us back to the fundamental questions of our identity. Who are we? What is the nature of our state? What is our vision for the future for ourselves and for the rest of the world? Who are our “significant others”? To what extent are we willing to deny or accept “significant others”? Issues of identity are fundamental to foreign policy thinking. The direction of answers to the posed questions depends on our choice of the concepts we use to define ourselves. The concept of the state-civilization should hardly be underestimated as such a conceptual framework. However, it should be borne in mind that theoretical and practical work in this direction is complicated by several factors.

The first is the track of Russia’s identity over the last century and a half. At the end of the 19th century, Westernizers and Slavophiles drew a fairly clear picture of the conflict between our identities. For Westerners, Russia’s problem lies in its unfinished Westernization. From the time of Peter the Great and even before him, we adopted certain Western models (organisation of the army, bureaucracy and, to some extent, industry), but for various reasons we avoided larger-scale political, economic and social reforms. Accordingly, Westerners saw the task of Russia as completing modernisation according to the Western model and achieving the proper level of Western civilization. Slavophiles, on the contrary, saw in the reforms of Peter the Great as the beginning of the distortion of Russia’s civilizational identity, the perversion of its culture and way of life, the split of society and the elite, and the “satanisation” of the country. Accordingly, they considered the task of Russia as one of returning to its cultural and civilizational heritage. The victory of the revolution in Russia in 1917 was the unconditional triumph of Westernism. Socialism is of Western origin. The country has made a powerful leap forward. In terms of Westernism, the collapse of the Soviet Union can be seen as the result of the incompleteness of the Soviet modernisation project, the replacement of modern institutions with archaic imitations of them, coexisting with unprecedented and progressive achievements. Actually, the reforms of the late 1980s took place precisely under the slogans of modernisation, and the desire to integrate with the West also reflected the perception of the causes of the crisis of that time in an unfinished or distorted modernisation project. Throughout the 20th century, the West or parts of it were political opponents of Russia. But in terms of views on the organisation of society and its institutions, the Soviet Union developed under the influence of Western ideas. Thirty years of the history of post-Soviet Russia have also passed in accordance with the logic of Westernism. The conservative turn that began in the late 1990s fit in well with it. Another thing is that the movement did not remove specific political problems in relations with a number of Western countries, but in some places exacerbated them. The causes of such problems lay mainly in the conflict of interests, and not in the conflict of civilizational identity. Foreign policy thinking in terms of the state-civilization brings us back to the perception of Russia as a separate civilization for which the West is a “significant other.” This is a way out of the rut of at least one century. Getting out of this rut will not be easy.

The second factor is determined by the specifics of the development of Russian society. The domestic Slavophiles of the 19th century had a serious and real argument in the form of huge sections of the population retaining a system of traditional culture and values. They had not yet been affected by modernisation, had not been distorted by urbanisation, industrialisation and other attributes of modernity. A century and a half of such modernisation has greatly changed Russian society. It has become much less religious. Its traditional way of life was broken. The modern Russian is radically different from his ancestor who lived a century ago. While a number of developing states today have a purely human resource to rely on, offering cultural and civilizational bonds, then such resources, for Russia, are much more modest. The last 30 years somewhat reduced the Soviet excesses, but did not return, and could not return Russia to the past. Moreover, Russia has turned into a full-fledged capitalist state, with all the ensuing consequences for its culture and lifestyle. Of course, Russia has a colossal historical experience, which can and should be one of the foundations of its identity. A lot has been done in this respect over the past several decades. But the direct connection with tradition has narrowed along with the shrinking of the footprint of traditional society. Russia can be imagined as a state-civilization, but it is much more difficult to place it on a real-life civilizational platform. However, many others face the same challenge.

The third factor is related to the fact that other states-civilizations, and indeed a large number of other states, maintain close ties with the West and are not going to give them up, even if political relations with these countries spark on separate issues. Many are in favour of a multipolar world and constructive relations with Russia, but are in no hurry to give up certain products of Western civilization. China remains a socialist country, albeit with its own specifics. India is cultivating democratic institutions, even if they are not considered liberal by some Western observers. Numerous countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America generally distance themselves from the choice between the West and non-West, pragmatically using those elements of Western spiritual and material culture that they consider acceptable and beneficial for themselves. With the same success, elements of, for example, Chinese culture may be absorbed in the future. Civilizations that are more or less pure become abstractions. Whereas political practice still requires specifics, especially in building a dialogue on individual issues. The need to diversify world finances and move away from the dominance of the dollar is easier to justify by common security interests than in terms of civilizational differences from the West.

All things considered, the concept of a state-civilization makes it possible to construct our political identity, to complete it with new elements. But this will require a lot of theoretical work both on the concept itself and on a wider range of topics. It will not be easy to create a new, full-fledged political theory, an alternative to the Big Three. Russian reality, and international relations themselves, are permeated with the conceptual apparatus of the three “big” theories. Time will tell to what extent the concept of the state-civilization will be developed both in theory and in practice. The new Foreign Policy Concept leaves room for manoeuvre. In the meantime, the realism of foreign policy remains relevant.

From our partner RIAC

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International Law

Beware the Munich Lesson… especially in Ukraine

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“Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace”.  – Winston Churchill, 1950.

The recurrent blunders and incompetence of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military in Ukraine have destroyed the country’s previous aura of military might. Yet it is somewhat counterintuitive that the weakening of one of the warring parties has intensified the unease of the international community. The war has resuscitated a looming wrangling in history: how to deal with a decadent and diminished but still dangerous state. Historian Stephen Kotkin recently noted how “this aggression derives from weakness, a sense of grandeur that is unmet”[1] in Russia’s self-perception; history often emphasizes how the end of empires are seldom peaceful processes.[2] As Russian resources and options run out, the glitter of nuclear weapons becomes a more appealing last resource. Still, the West must be wary and avoid the ‘fear of looking weak’ as the bedrock for the design of foreign policy; this prejudice has led to preventable violent escalations in the past.

With the growing compilation of failures in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has fallen into the trap and urge to micromanage and meddle in all kinds of military tactics and subtleties, raising the risk of mistakes, further escalation, and the creation of a personal link with the conflict that could diminish his power. As Tzar Nicholas II was warned during World War I about his own participation in the war, “beware of creating a personal association with the outcomes,” one of his advisers alerted, remember that the “[T]he army under your command must be victorious.”[3]

Earlier in the conflict, Vladimir Putin and his accomplice, Chinese President Xi Jinping, issued a joint statement: “Friendship between the two states has no limits; there are no forbidden areas of cooperation.”[4] Yet the “no-limit” friendship has to survive the persistent incompetence of Russian forces, their sinking morale on the battlefield, the internal opposition of Russian citizens, and the embarrassment on the international stage. It is unlikely that all this wreckage hasn’t made Putin cognizant that “he has no way to retire gracefully after all the damage he’s done.”[5] Hence the danger. The possibility of using nuclear weapons at least give him the cowardly solace to grumble, ‘après moi, le dèluge.’ In this volatile scenario, crammed with cruelty and grudge, the West should be careful not to misuse one of history’s most referenced and misunderstood lessons: the ‘Munich lesson.’

Appeasement is one of the worst insults in politics—a synonym for cowardice and naivety. The well-known image of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping out of his airplane, waving a piece of paper in front of a cheering crowd, proclaiming “peace for our times” became the yardstick of weakness and political short-sightedness. But political strategies are rarely suitable or harmful in the abstract; they are advantageous or ineffective in specific contexts. The Munich Lesson needs to be reconsidered and used more scrupulously. The agreement of 1938 extended territorial concessions to Germany, allowing Adolf Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland, an ethnically German area in Czechoslovakia, hoping to stop further territorial claims by the Reich. Nonetheless, the event left the wrong lesson in history because it has been recreated as a binary scenario for action: tyranny must always be met with force. Not doing so represents moral bankruptcy, or as Churchill described it, “one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”[6]

Appeasement has been a significant reference point in U.S. foreign policy on more than one occasion. It was explicitly pointed out to justify the invasion of Iraq during the G.W. Bush administration and to bolster the harsher versions of neoconservatism.[7] Journalist Gideon Rachman asserts that “misapplied ‘lessons of Munich’ have led to repeated foreign policy disasters since 1945”.[8] The gist of the ‘lesson’ and its use as the moral podium to advocate for the benefit of force and military interventions rests in the simplification that democracies in the 1930s ‘lacked the will’ to stop Hitler. The analogy was likewise employed during the Vietnam War. President Nixon wrote in his memoirs that “what had been true of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 was no less true of the betrayal of South Vietnam to the communists advocated by many in 1965”.[9]  But the analogy is deceptive because it draws a deduction in hindsight, a conclusion that at the time was “neither simple nor obvious.”[10] When Chamberlain made the agreement, the decision was the result of a political context that included the risk of Britain’s military overstretch, American isolationist trend, distrust of the Soviet Union, guilt for a recent vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the constraints of public opinion.[11] The correct ‘Munich lesson’ is not that appeasement is a moral disgrace, but rather that “appeasement failed because Hitler was unappeasable”; Hitler wanted war.[12] The narrower pejorative connotation needs to be reexamined, as it rests on the generalization that all “states are inherently insatiable.”[13] Furthermore, hindsight bias gives the wrong impression that facts were self-evident at the time and their consequences were predictable.

But security threats must not be confronted as simple dichotomies. A more sensible lesson is distrusting the tendency to use military responses as the ultimate and imperative foreign policy tool. This reconsideration is not an argument to turn a blind eye to bullies; but an invitation to outmaneuver them. The 1930s reveal “the danger of underestimating a security threat [however] the post-World War II decades contain examples of the danger of overestimating [one].”.[14] To grasp the events in Munich, we must consider other historical examples where “short-term self-discipline set the stage for long-term success,” like how H. Truman’s moderation in North Korea or D. Eisenhauer’s refusal to intervene in the Soviet invasion of Hungary[15] led to positive results. History shows that moderation and restraint must be considered as options in foreign policy; compromise is not tantamount to appeasement.

The essence of appeasement is probably best summarized by the phrase attributed to Churchill: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war”.[16] But this is an incomplete story. As former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain understood the confines of Britain’s crippled economy at the time. A vast array of foreign policy options was not the defining setting of a country traumatized by the Great War. Chamberlain was no feckless dove; he was a man of his generation, a man deeply abhorred, along with his countrymen, by the memory of the recent war, “the British and French people greeted the Munich agreement with heartfelt relief. It was not until “March 1939, when Hitler occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia, a revulsion of feeling had occurred in Britain, where war was now widely accepted as inevitable”.[17] Moreover, Chamberlain was aware of Britain’s insufficient military preparedness. He had received a report from the military chief staff concluding that the army’s capabilities were inadequate to stop a German takeover of Czechoslovakia[18]and to the possibility of a German air assault, “Britain was defenseless in the face of the bomber.”[19]  The Committee of Imperial Defense argued that delaying the outbreak of war was necessary for the acquisition of airplanes to counter the Luftwaffe.[20]

The events at Munich developed under a much more sophisticated and adverse context than it is usually recognized, “the failure to stand up to Hitler was not the real lesson to be learned […] For a liberal democracy to effectively oppose aggression, especially if it comes at the risk of a long and costly war, it requires the overwhelming support of the people”.[21] Delaying war was essential and ineluctable for Britain. The country needed to build up the army, and, not less importantly, the public was divided, “[…]public opinion dreaded the prospect of another war and welcomed any diplomatic initiative that might avert one.”[22] Additionally, Britain had no treaty obligation to defend Czechoslovakia. It was not until Hitler invaded Poland, violating the Munich Agreement, Britain was united and militarily prepared.[23] Historian Michael Howard proposed an insightful explanation of how Chamberlain and his generation understood the world and their context, which, of course, constrained what they envisaged as viable options:

“It is difficult for historians in retrospect, with all the wisdom of hindsight and all the time in the world, to comprehend the complex processes that went to the creation of the Third Reich and the nature of the society to which it gave political expression, we should not be too quick to condemn those contemporary British statesmen who so tragically misunderstood the phenomenon in their own day. For their perceptions were also constrained by their cultural framework. Neville Chamberlain and his closest colleagues had been brought up in the England of Queen Victoria and were middle-aged when the First World War began. Their world was that of the British Empire. The problems posed by the Congress Party in India, by the Wafd movement in Egypt, and by the relations of Briton and Boer in South Africa were more immediate to them, more real, more urgent, than were the racial antagonisms of Central Europe”.[24]

Back to the repercussions for our age, the West’s response -or lack thereof- to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the aggressions in Georgia in 2008 was condemned as bashful and insubstantial, a careless green light that emboldened the Putin regime for the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Appeasement swiftly returned as the once again always-forgotten lesson of history. Once more, a tyrant in violation of international law, invaded a neighboring territory to protect stranded ethnic populations’ captured by made-up countries and corrupt Western regimes’.[25]

With Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggressions, Western leaders became paranoid and wary of being associated with arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain.[26] Arguably, then as now, the unwillingness to establish redlines emboldened the dictators to demand more. The Munich lesson applied to Ukraine is often argued along the following lines:

“Any talk of a negotiated peace would only appease the aggressor, reward blatant aggression and crimes against humanity with territory or a neutral status of its target […] The Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of Czech Sudetenland did not prevent the Second World War; rather, global acceptance of these compromises hastened and invited it”.[27]  Therefore, the lesson is “confront evil regimes as soon as possible.”[28]

The problem with this rigid reconstruction of the analogy is that the world is different now than in the 1930s. Back then, with all its cruelty, war did not imply nuclear Armageddon. The far-fetched interpretation of Munich does not solve the usual complex details and more intricate aspects of policy and war, the concealed, and not so thrilling, role of economics, alliances, and function of public opinion in democratic politics. For example, does avoiding Appeasement means that the West should give Ukraine everything it needs to succeed? How should the U.S. deal with foes supporting Russia or with the “Ukrainian fatigue” as assistance becomes increasingly a partisan issue? The ghost of Chamberlain often hunts down those who even dare to have doubts or consider options in foreign policy.

Ukraine must win and Vladimir Putin should be persecuted as the fugitive criminal that he is. But historical lessons are usually misguidedly retrieved to shrink our options for action instead of widening our path and scope to appraise political dilemmas. The recollection of history seldom creates consensus, albeit it should be upheld for its capacity to shed light on dangerous zones and build signposts along the way of statecraft.

In hindsight, once catastrophes occur, it is not unusual to ask why these were not prevented in due time. Every crisis has its “where were you when” moment. If we only “had ‘stood up’ to Hitler sooner; or if we had given greater encouragement to the clandestine opposition within Germany,” we tell ourselves. But the “sad paradox of Munich is that when thuggish aggressors can be easily stopped, there’s rarely the moral case necessary for democracies to take action.”[29] Are all other options short of war only emboldening to the aggressor? This can undoubtedly be the case, but more often than not, bullies have already made up their minds.

The ‘Munich lesson’ is not a straightforward guide to action nor an unwavering moral principle. Its careless use sprouts from the generalization that all authoritarian regimes are equally insatiable, but a one-fits-all solution to all tyrants is irresponsible. Every autocrat needs to be faced according to their foibles. Dictators must be stopped, and their means condemned, yet a stringent application of the ‘Munich lesson’ constrains policy options and the required imagination to outwit their regimes.


[1] Stephen Kotkin, Foreign Affairs Podcast, “What Putin got wrong about Ukraine, Russia and the West, May 26, 2023: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/podcasts/what-putin-got-wrong-about-ukraine-russia-and-west

[2] Niall Ferguson, “Why the end of America’s Empire won’t be peaceful”, The Economist, August 2021:

[3] Tom Nichols, “Russia’s nuclear threats are all Putin has left”, The Atlantic, September 2022:

[4] Tony Munroe and Andrew Osborne, “China, Russia partner up against West at Olympics summit”, Reuters, February 2022:

[5] Andreas Kluth, “A decision tree for Biden if Putin goes nuclear”, The Washington Post, September 2022:

[6] Mathew Wills, “Reconsidering Appeasement”, Jstor, August 2055:

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[10] Ibid.

[11] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, “Thinking in Time. The uses of history for decision makers”, The Free Press, 1986, p. 87.

[12] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Samuel Charap and Michael Mazarr, “The wisdom of U.S. restraint on Russia. As in the Cold War, Washington cannot wish Moscow away”, Foreign Affairs, September 2022:

[16] Mark W. Davis, “What would Churchill do?”, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2015:

[17] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111.

[18] Ishaan Tharoor, “In defense of Neville Chamberlain, hindsight’s most battered punching bag”, The Washington Post, July 20, 2015.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[22] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111

[23] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[24] Michael Howard, “The lessons of history”, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 15.

[25] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[26] Ibid.

[27] Yaroslav Baran, “Ukraine and the Price of Appeasement”, Policy Magazine, February 23, 2023:

[28] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[29] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist

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International Law

Russia-Ukraine conflict: Perspective of International Laws of Use of Force

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A residential building in Bakhmut is on fire after the Russian shelling. December 7, 2022.Photo By Konstantin & Vlada Liberov war.ukraine.ua

Russia, on 24th February 2022, invaded Ukraine. Initially, Russia called this invasion a ‘Peacekeeping’ mission but later called it a ‘Special Military Operation.’ Moscow has given many justification in the legal domain to legitimize its military operation in Ukraine, but they all have failed to win the support of international law and the majority of states.[1] According to research conducted by Alonso Gurmendi, an International Law professor at the Universidad del Pacífico Law School in Peru, out of 197 entities (193 member UN States, Taiwan, Palestine and the Holy Sea), 143 entities[2] (72.59%) consider Russia’s actions as ‘act of aggression.’[3] So it is clear that Moscow failed to win the international legitimacy of its ‘special military operation.’ This essay explores from a legal perspective how Kremlin’s actions are unlawful and failed to meet the standards of international laws of Use of Force as the international community calls Russia’s actions an ‘act of aggression’.

Jus ad Bellum

Jus ad bellum is the legal rule which governs when a state can decide to use force against another state. Three laws of the UN charter comprise the Jus ad bellum principle. The first is the UN. Charter. Article 2(4). It prohibits the member states of the UN to ‘use or threaten’ to use force against the other member state of the UN.[4]  However, Article 51 presents an exception. It states that UN member states can resort to ‘individual or collective self-defence’ if an armed attack occurs against them.[5] Similarly, Chapter VII (Article 39) of the UN charter authorizes the UN Security Council to permit necessary military actions to ‘maintain or restore the international peace and stability.’[6]

Moscow’s Infringement of Jus ad Bellum

               Kremlin gave three legal arguments to prove its obedience to Jus ad bellum: Self-Defense, Collective Defence and Humanitarian Intervention.

Self-Defence

Moscow claims that the presence of the United States and NATO in Ukraine threatened its security. So under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it has the ‘inherent right’ to defend itself from an armed attack. However, there was no armed attack from Ukraine, the United States or NATO, which could have given the right of self-defence to Russia. So Moscow has used “pre-emptive” self-defence, which is not under the umbrella of Article 51.[7] Secondly, according to this article, a state exercising its right of self-defence must immediately report to the UNSC. Russia’s representative to the UN informed the UN Security General on the morning of the day when it launched its military operation in Ukraine under Article 51 of the UN charter. Russian representative also sent a letter (UN Doc. S/2022/154). However, the council condemned it and voted 11-1 against Russia. India, China and the United Arab Emirates abstained from voting, but Russia’s veto status in the council saved it from any resolution against it.[8] Lastly, NATO has a limited deployment of forces on the Russian border, which didn’t give NATO any offensive capability to breach the territorial sovereignty of Russia.[9] However, the irony is, Russian forces were at the gates of Ukraine. Kremlin gave “indications and warnings” to Kyiv from its borders, Belarus, and the Black Sea more than NATO gave at the Russian border.[10]

Collective Self-Defence

Moscow claimed it acted under the collective self-defence of Ukraine’s separatist areas, Luhansk and Donetsk regions, under Article 51. Russia recognized these areas as independent only three days before its attack.[11] However, can these regions fulfil the criteria of independent states? Before the invasion, along with Russia, only four states –Syria, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela- consider these regions independent.[12] So far, only these states have considered these regions independent. According to the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of the States, these regions can’t be regarded as Sovereign States as they lack international recognition.[13]

Even if we view these regions as independent states, three arguments will debunk Russia’s claim of Collective Defense. First, according to Article 51, there should be an armed attack to use the right of self-defence. However, there is no proper evidence that Ukraine authorities launched a military operation on these regions.[14] Second, Article 51 is only for UN member states. Russia’s claimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic are not UN member states, so ‘Collective Self-Defence’ under Article 51 does not apply to them.[15] Third, if the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic were in danger of a Ukrainian assault, the Russian forces should have limited themselves to these two regions. Instead, its forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine aimed at its ‘demilitarization.’[16] It is against the International Customary Laws of ‘necessity and proportionality’ of the use of force.[17]

Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide?

               The third argument that Russia gave was that it is preventing genocide prepared by the regime in Kyiv against the ethnic Russians or the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Kyiv applied [18] to the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 26th February 2022 against the Russian claims of genocide under the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,’ 1948.[19] On 16th March 2022, ICJ gave its verdict (13-2 votes) against Moscow and claimed its aggression as unlawful and asked it to suspend its Special Military Operation in Ukraine.[20] Nevertheless, Kremlin didn’t abide by the ruling of ICJ.

               Secondly, Russian actions are also not per the Genocide Convention. According to Article II of the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,’ vicious acts committed against the part or whole of a ‘national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’[21] However, no evidence suggests Kyiv committed such violent acts on its Russian-speaking population.[22] As there is no evidence of Genocide, it is unlawful for Russia to maintain its forces in Ukrainian territory for humanitarian intervention.

               Another reason Moscow gave for its humanitarian intervention was the ‘Rescue of its National.’ Russia has handed its nationality to the Russian-speaking population of its neighboring states, which were once part of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine is one of them. However, such a policy of “passportization” is against the internal laws of the state in which the person resides.[23] So Russia is abusing the internal laws of Ukraine and making it a justification for its invasion. Also, the Ukrainian government has done nothing to the Russian population in Ukraine as they didn’t hold any Russian civilian residing in Ukraine hostage or threaten it with lethal force.[24] Even if Ukrainian forces have fought with the separatist group in the Donbas region, the proportionality of the Russian invasion is much greater. Thus, Russia is violating the internal as well as external sovereignty of Ukraine.

Conclusion

The main argument of this essay was ‘Russia is an aggressor state and has violated the International laws of Use of Force by starting its Special Military Operation in Ukraine.’ This essay looked into this argument from the perspective of jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles. According to the Jus ad bellum principle, Russia has falsely interpreted Article 51 of the UN charter to justify its claims of self-defence and collective self-defence. Moreover, its claims of genocide also don’t meet the standards of the ‘Genocide Convention and ICJ.’ Thus, Russia is an aggressor state and has violated the International laws of the Use of Force by starting its Special Military Operation in Ukraine.


[1] Terry D Gill. 2022. “Remarks on the Law Relating to the Use of Force in the Ukraine Conflict.” Lieber Institute. March 9. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://lieber.westpoint.edu/remarks-use-of-force-ukraine-conflict/.

[2] Out of these 143 entities, 141 states voted for UNGA Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 against Russia and the other two are Taiwan and Kosovo.

[3] Alonso Gurmendi. 2022. “Tracking State Reactions to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Resource for Research.” Opinio Juris. March 4. Accessed April 30, 2023. http://opiniojuris.org/2022/03/04/tracking-state-reactions-to-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-a-resource-for-research/.

[4] Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. 2021. Article 2(1)– (5) of Charter of the United Nations. United Nations, Codification Division, Office of Legal Affairs. March 10. Accessed April 30, 2023. https://legal.un.org/repertory/art2.shtml.

[5] Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. 2016. Article 51 of Charter of the United Nations. United Nations, Codification Division, Office of Legal Affairs. August 23. Accessed April 30, 2023. https://legal.un.org/repertory/art51.shtml.

[6] Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. 2016. Article 39 of Charter of the United Nations. United Nations, Codification Division, Office of Legal Affairs. August 23. Accessed April 30, 2023. https://legal.un.org/repertory/art39.shtml.

[7] Jus Mundi. 2022. Implications Of The War In Ukraine Under International Law – Part 1. April 29. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://blog.jusmundi.com/implications-of-the-war-in-ukraine-under-international-law-the-use-of-force-under-international-law/.

[8] Michael N Schmitt. 2022. “Russia’s “Special Military Operation” and the (Claimed) Right of Self-Defense.” Lieber Institute. February 28. Accessed April 30, 2023. https://lieber.westpoint.edu/russia-special-military-operation-claimed-right-self-defense/.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Valerie Hopkins and Andrew E. Kramer. 2022. “Why it matters that Russia just recognized Donetsk and Luhansk.” The New York Times. February 21. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/world/europe/donetsk-luhansk-donbas-ukraine.html.

[12] Mansur Mirovalev. 2022. “Donetsk and Luhansk: What you should know about the ‘republics’.” Al Jazeera. February 22. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/22/what-are-donetsk-and-luhansk-ukraines-separatist-statelets.

[13] Jus Mundi. 2022. Implications Of The War In Ukraine Under International Law – Part 1. April 29. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://blog.jusmundi.com/implications-of-the-war-in-ukraine-under-international-law-the-use-of-force-under-international-law/.

[14] Marc Weller. 2022. “Russia’s Recognition of the ‘Separatist Republics’ in Ukraine was Manifestly Unlawful.” EJIL:Talk! Blog of the European Journal of International Law. March 9. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.ejiltalk.org/russias-recognition-of-the-separatist-republics-in-ukraine-was-manifestly-unlawful/.

[15] John B. Bellinger III. 2022. “How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Violates International Law.” Council on Foreign Relations. February 28. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/article/how-russias-invasion-ukraine-violates-international-law.

[16] Stephen P Mulligan. 2022. The Law of War and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Washington D.C: Congressional Research Service, March 16.

[17] Marko Milanovic. 2022. “What is Russia’s Legal Justification for Using Force against Ukraine?” EJIL:Talk! Blog of the European Journal of International Law. February 24. Accessed May 7, 2022. https://www.ejiltalk.org/what-is-russias-legal-justification-for-using-force-against-ukraine/.

[18] United States International Court of Justice. 2022. “Allegations of Genocide Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Ukraine v. Russian Federation).” Application from the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Hague.

[19] Jus Mundi. 2022. Implications Of The War In Ukraine Under International Law – Part 1. April 29. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://blog.jusmundi.com/implications-of-the-war-in-ukraine-under-international-law-the-use-of-force-under-international-law/

[20] UN News. 2022. International Court orders Russia to ‘immediately suspend’ military operations in Ukraine. Hague, March 16. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1114052.

[21] United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. 2023. Genocide. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml.

[22] John B. Bellinger III. 2022. “How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Violates International Law.” Council on Foreign Relations. February 28. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/article/how-russias-invasion-ukraine-violates-international-law.

[23] Terry D Gill. 2022. “Remarks on the Law Relating to the Use of Force in the Ukraine Conflict.” Lieber Institute. March 9. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://lieber.westpoint.edu/remarks-use-of-force-ukraine-conflict/.

[24] Ibid

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