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Russia and the 'Responsibility to Protect'
Russia and the 'Responsibility to Protect'
Decoding Russia’s Nuclear Threats over Ukraine
Decoding Russia’s Nuclear Threats over Ukraine

Russia and the 'Responsibility to Protect'

Originally published in Los Angeles Times

The principle was intended to prevent another Cambodia or Rwanda; it cannot be used to justify Moscow's invasion of Georgia.

The Russian government has argued that its recent military operations in Georgia were justified by the principle of "responsibility to protect" (colloquially known as R2P). This is the approach to dealing with mass-atrocity crimes that was embraced by 150 member states at the 2005 U.N. World Summit.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin have described Georgia's initial actions against the local population in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia as "genocide." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that Russia's use of force in response was an exercise of the "responsibility to protect," which applied not only "in the U.N. system when people see some trouble in Africa" but also under the Russian Constitution when its own citizens were at risk.

For those of us who have worked long and hard to create a consensus that the world should never again turn its back on another Cambodia or Rwanda, this and every misapplication of R2P -- genuine or cynical -- is an occasion for alarm. We are conscious of the fragility of that consensus should the impression gain hold that R2P is just another excuse for the major powers to throw their weight around. It needs to be made clear beyond a doubt that whatever other explanation Russia had for its military action in Georgia, the R2P principle was not among the valid ones.

The primary ground stated for intervention by Russian leaders was "to protect Russian citizens." But this is not an R2P rationale. R2P is about the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect populations within its own borders (and of other states to assist it), and the responsibility of other states to step in with appropriate action if that state is unable or unwilling to do so. It does not address the question of an individual country taking direct action to protect its nationals located outside its own borders. When such action has been taken in the past -- as it often has been -- the justification has been almost invariably advanced in terms of "self-defense" (since 1945, under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter). The second major reason for resisting the Russian characterization is that Russia has not made a compelling case that the threat posed by Georgia to the South Ossetian population was of a nature and scale to legitimate the use of military force. Five criteria are relevant here, and it is not clear that any of them were satisfied.

The seriousness of the threat. It is not at all clear whether any of the U.N.-specified crimes of "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity" were being committed, or imminently about to be, by Georgia against South Ossetians. While Georgia's actions in attacking the South Ossetia capital, Tskhinvali, might well be thought to be an unjustified overreaction to the provocations it cites, the available evidence is not of the weight or clarity needed to justify the use of coercive military action by others in response.

The primary purpose of the response. While one purpose of the Russian military intervention may have been to protect South Ossetian civilians under attack, it is highly questionable whether that was the primary motive. Others appear to have been to establish full Russian control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to dismantle Georgia's entire military capability, to scuttle Georgia's NATO ambitions and to send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union as to what would and would not be tolerated by Moscow.

Military action only as a last resort. A peaceful solution does not seem to have been out of reach here. An immediate U.N. Security Council call for Georgia to cease its military action would have placed Tbilisi under great pressure to comply. Russia did urge the Security Council on the evening of Aug. 7 to call for a cease-fire, but disagreement about whether the statement should refer to Georgia's territorial integrity led to council inaction. With a little more flexibility on all sides, this issue could probably have been finessed. Russia's position on the "last resort" issue is further weakened by its later attack on Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Georgia signed a cease-fire agreement.

Proportionality of response. The introduction of about 20,000 Russian troops and 100 tanks into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Georgia proper appears manifestly excessive. The Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea as well as aerial bombings of Gori, Poti, the Zugdidi region and an aviation plant in Tbilisi went well beyond the necessary minimum.

More good than harm from the intervention. That is a very difficult argument to make, based on the current evidence about refugee outflows and unrestrained reprisal actions by South Ossetian separatists against Georgians, not to mention concerns about wider implications for regional and global stability.

The final response to Russia's reliance on the R2P resolution is that there was no Security Council resolution giving it legal authority for military intervention -- an omission that Moscow complained about long and hard when the U.S. ignored this requirement in Kosovo in 1999 (not to mention Iraq in 2003). The 2005 General Assembly position was very clear that, when any country seeks to apply forceful means to address an R2P situation, it must do so through the Security Council. The Russia-Georgia case highlights the risks of states, whether individually or in a coalition, interpreting global norms unilaterally. The sense of moral outrage at reports of civilians being killed and ethnically cleansed can have the unintended effect of clouding judgment as to the best response, which is another reason to channel action collectively through the United Nations. That other major countries may have been indifferent to this constraint in the past doesn't justify Russian actions in Georgia. Vigilante justice is always dangerous.

Podcast / Global

Decoding Russia’s Nuclear Threats over Ukraine

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s Europe & Central Asia Director Olga Oliker to discuss Russia’s nuclear menacing over Ukraine and whether the war could tip into a nuclear confrontation.

Since Russian forces crossed en masse the Ukrainian border a month ago, the war has been overshadowed by Moscow’s nuclear menacing. Vladimir Putin has made thinly veiled threats of nuclear escalation as a way to deter other governments coming to Ukraine’s aid. He also announced he was placing Russian nuclear deterrence forces on “high alert”, though the meaning of that is not entirely clear. Recent proclamations by Russian officials that Ukraine might use biological and chemical weapons add to concerns that Russia is laying the ground for its own use of such weapons. 

In this week’s episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, discuss the significance of Russia’s nuclear threats and what they aim to achieve. They talk about Russia’s nuclear doctrine and widespread perceptions in Western capitals about its “escalate to de-escalate” policy. Olya also runs through Moscow’s failure to conquer Ukraine quickly in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by Western arms supplies, and what that might mean for the Kremlin’s calculations. They talk about the potential dangers of greater NATO involvement, scenarios that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons, what that would mean and ways of minimising risks of a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ukraine country page and make sure to read our recent statement, “Avoiding an Even Worse Catastrophe in Ukraine” and Olga’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs, “Putin’s Nuclear Bluff”.


Executive Vice President
Program Director, Europe and Central Asia