R2P in Ukraine?

Yesterday, I gave a talk on ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’ at McGill University. Afterwards, one of the students asked me a question about parallels between the wars in Kosovo in 1999 and Ukraine in 2014/15. As I answered, I found myself thinking about the scale of the humanitarian crises in both cases and what this means for supporters of so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’.

In 1999, NATO aircraft bombed Yugoslavia for three months. The aim, according to NATO leaders, was to coerce the Yugoslav government to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. We were told that NATO’s campaign was a humanitarian intervention. The case of Kosovo was subsequently used to justify the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), under which state sovereignty is limited and states have an obligation to protect the citizens of other countries if their rights are being attacked.

It is believed that prior to NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, about 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo. Roughly half of these were Serbs, dead at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and half were Albanian Kosovars, killed by Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces. While eventually several hundred thousand Kosovars fled their homes to avoid the fighting, the vast majority of these did so only after NATO began its bombing.

According to the United Nations, over 5,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in the past year. It is not clear what percentage is military and what percentage civilian casualties, but it is obvious that the number of civilian deaths in the conflict has been very high. And the situation is getting worse. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights assesses that 262 people died in Eastern Ukraine between 13 and 21 January alone. Meanwhile, the High Commission for Refugees reports that there are now about half a million displaced persons from Donetsk and Lugansk within Ukraine, and that another 200,000 have fled to Russia. The towns and cities of Eastern Ukraine are subjected to daily bombardment from artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Many of the people who remain there are without electricity and running water.

In short, the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine today is far worse than that in Kosovo prior to NATO’s 1999 intervention. Should the Russian Army invade Ukraine in force, drive the Ukrainian Army out of Donetsk and Lugansk, and bring the war to a rapid end? This, in principle, it is entirely capable of doing. R2P suggests that it should. In 1999, NATO killed about 1,500 Yugoslav civilians in the course of its bombing; it is unlikely that the civilian death toll from a Russian invasion would be much higher, and it might even be lower.

If R2P is valid, then its proponents should surely welcome such an intervention. In practice, I am sure that they wouldn’t. The point here is not to say that we should demand Russian humanitarian intervention in Ukraine; there are many reasons why that would be an extremely bad thing. Rather, the point is to show the absurdity of the humanitarian warriors’ position. Perhaps they can come up with a good explanation for why humanitarian intervention by NATO is justifiable but similar intervention by Russia in a far worse humanitarian situation would not be. I would be interested to hear it.

UPDATE: Brad Cabana (a fellow Canadian & former army captain) has just posted an argument on his blog that Russia should invade Ukraine. He makes his case well. As someone who has opposed the principle of humanitarian intervention ever since Kosovo, I cannot support it, if only in order to be consistent, but it seems to me to be entirely in line with R2P and thus to pose some real problems for the R2P crowd, who despite their alleged principles will no doubt be thoroughly against it:


21 thoughts on “R2P in Ukraine?”

    1. Indeed, Nebojsa, that’s entirely right. I’m sure, however, that our humanitarian warrior-intellectuals will be able to come up with some more sophisticated casuistry to explain why they believe that difference is philosophically valid. It would be interesting to know what that might be.


  1. One possible argument is “clean hands”: an (external) authority purporting to exercise R2P as an exception to norms re sovereignty, i.e., in “justified” violation of sovereignty, can only do so legitimately if it arrives at the exercise with clean hands. So, ideally, the state (or group or institution, etc.) that purports to rescue some civilian population from conflict – by intervening and infringing on local sovereignty in normally impermissible ways – will have had no part to play in the conflict itself, and especially it will have had no role in the initiation of hostilities. Ideally it would be some sort of “neutral” party (which is what the UN is supposed to be, but then R2P in principle circumvents the UN … so at least the acting state should be sort of “UN-like”).

    The Kosovo history on this is murky, but some historians have claimed it was various actions by the US (in imposing a certain economic model, and taking various other active steps) that led to the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia. So not sure NATO/US could claim clean hands viz Kosovo … in which case the argument would be watered down to “cleaner hands”. They would certainly claim NATO/US hands are “cleaner” viz Kosovo than Russia’s are viz Ukraine.

    But in any event, that’s sort of irrelevant since, given the facts recounted in the post (and as subsequent investigations and histories have confirmed), it was the intervention that produced/generated the crisis, not vice versa … things got dramatically worse after and because of the intervention, not before. So Yugoslavia/Kosovo is not even an instance of actual R2P! (Indeed, that part of the world could have used an exercise of R2P to save it from its saviours … like, maybe some benevolent extraterrestrial power.)

    I recently listened to a joint lecture by Alan Rock and Lloyd Axworthy, where they droned on and on about how proud they were, as Liberals, to have been instrumental in developing R2P and how they (especially Rock) were disappointed it was not used more properly or more explicitly or robustly (or whatever) in other cases, especially the Libya case …. and they seemed to be utterly and totally clueless about what actually happened in Libya at the time, and what is actually happening there today.

    Bottom line: R2P and “humanitarian interventions”, and all that, are a great idea in principle … we just haven’t seen an actual instance of anything like that in practice yet, i.e., where the cure has been truly preferable to the disease. (The Vietnam-Cambodia war maybe, but very doubtful. Maybe even Angola, if we look at it a certain way.)


  2. Dear Paul:
    How could Samantha Power and the R2P crowd possibly object to Russia’s application of R2P in Ukraine, you ask?

    It would most likely be some variant of the “Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi” argument!


  3. Russia has already invaded Ukraine, annexed one part of its territory and sponsored a separatist movement in another. Putin has stated that Ukrainians and Russians are “practically one people” and Kyiv is the “mother of Russian cities”. It would be easy to dismiss any possible Russian “humanitarian intervention” as a fig leaf for the pursuit of old-fashioned ethno-national goals — with good reason. If Russia really did openly send in troops to Ukraine, one could quite understand Kyiv’s doubts that they would stop at the current borders of the DNR and LNR.


    1. Although they pursued fleeing Georgian forces outside the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, they broke off the pursuit and withdrew as soon as objections were raised. There is no reason to believe they would behave differently here, especially as Putin has kept up the narrative that they are brother Slavs despite Kiev’s attempts to antagonize Russia. In anti-piracy actions working in conjunction with – if not part of – NATO navies the Russian navy has conducted itself professionally and operated with restraint.


      1. It is precisely the “brother Slav” narrative which worries Ukrainians as this has been used and is used by Russian nationalists to deny Ukrainian identity and undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty.


  4. Incidentally, the UNHCR appears to be counting just the number of formal asylum applicants, whereas the actual number of people fleeing to Russia has approached (perhaps by now exceeded) a million. http://itar-tass.com/en/russia/772124

    This is not the place to revisit the “Russia has already invaded Ukraine” meme (indeed by some counts of Kiev’s various “invasion” claims, Russia has done so upwards of 30 times). … Instead, the post raises the question as to whether, in principle (“in theory”, if you like), a real/full and actually discernible/observable Russian invasion could put an end to the conflict and the humanitarian crisis taking place; and if so, whether such an “intervention” could reasonably be counted as a humanitarian/R2P act; and if, again, “in principle”, it cannot be counted as an R2P intervention, why not? The post concedes such an intervention would, in actual practice, very likely “be an extremely bad thing”.

    The “Russia sponsored a separatist movement” claim is, however, relevant to the actual “theoretical” questions posed. First of all, it is unclear that the “movement” was separatist to begin with (the “ATO” probably did more to convert it into one); but in any case, whatever the “movement” was or is, the crucial question is whether it would have arisen independently of any actions by Russia. We know what Kiev’s claim is, of course: that it’s all just Russia’s doing, that there would be no problem without Russia, etc. But for the purposes of the exercise at least, let’s assume the “movement” would have existed even without Russian actions (which, actually, is more correct than not … but never mind). This leaves us with Russia having given some material support to this “movement” – which, actually, is difficult to deny.

    Given the idea of “clean hands”, the question is: would Russia’s having given material support to this “movement” preclude Russia from invoking R2P? And the answer is: it’s not perfectly clear. On the one hand, of course, if Russia played at least some non-trivial part/role in the hostilities that arose, then (again, theoretically speaking) it’s subsequent intervention would not be strictly speaking (i.e., purely) “humanitarian” – it could be seen as pursuit of some ulterior motive, namely whatever the motive behind offering the initial support to the “movement” inside Ukraine was in the first place. (And of course, it very likely would be seen as non-humanitarian by the West.) On the other hand, if such an intervention were, let’s say, to instantly reduce the body count to zero, would it matter that there were also ulterior motives for it? And even then, we could still ask: would this “ulterior motive” be necessarily incompatible with a “humanitarian” motive? For, let’s just suppose Russia’s “ulterior motive” is to bring into reality some sort of “federal” system in Ukraine, with secure minority rights, etc.; if this actually contributes to the peace (both short- and long-term), would it be such a bad thing, i.e., would it automatically be outside the scope of a “humanitarian” mission? So, a lot would depend on what Russia would actually do during and after such a hypothetical R2P-type intervention.

    But bottom line: it’s very likely to be messy and messed up; we haven’t seen any very good, clean examples of R2P in practice anywhere yet, so, realistically, there’s really not a lot to be said in favour of the idea … why would we think Russia would suddenly be the first to do this successfully? The best bet for peace is still for both sides inside Ukraine to sit down and sort it out, with the requisite “external” support and pressure for compromise … but who knows, that could change.


    1. All good points, CityZen. When philosophers engage in hypothetical mindgames, the point is not realism but to determine whether the underlying principles people are claiming are valid. So, in this example, we assume that the Russian intervention was successful. In practice,it would be fraught with terrible consequences, for instance because of what CHenriques says, but for sake of testing the validity of R2P, we put that to one side and assume success. We then ask the R2P-ers, would you then support it? If not, then they have to explain why, which forces a deeper examination of the issue.

      Going on what CityZen says it seems likely that one argument against even a successful Russian intervention would be what just war theorists call ‘legitimate authority’. Does Russia have the authority to intervene? CityZen’s ‘clean hands’ might be an answer – it would be deeply problematic if a state could provoke trouble in another state and then use that second state’s violent response as an excuse for invading it. Intentions matter, as they affect actions. So the actor who has some interest in the state in question cannot act out of purely humanitarian motives and so will not put humanitarian protection first. But clean hands has not, as far as I know, ever been part of R2P, for the simple reason that it’s impractical – states will always have a mix of motives when intervening.

      My own view is that we need to take a rule consequentialist, not an act consequentialist, position – such interventions generally fail, and therefore we should have a rule against them. So, even if this one succeeded, we still shouldn’t support it. But that is not the R2P-ers’ position. They are act consequentialists, it seems to me, and therefore, if we assume that the intervention works, they ought to support it.


      1. Well said, Paul; NATO would never allow Russia legitimacy, and it would obviously lose the propaganda war in the English-speaking press. But more importantly, although a military operation would probably roll up the Ukrainians in short order, I doubt it would be allowed to achieve its goal, because NATO would be screaming that Russia must disengage completely and get itself outside Ukraine’s borders immediately. That is because Ukraine cannot be allowed to lose, and even if they lost militarily – as they would without doubt – NATO would prevent the military victory from achieving political change and any sort of rapprochement. The rules are completely different in Ukraine, because the west is backing the state against the rebels, even to the extent it will let the state violate international humanitarian law without demur.


  5. “This is not the place to revisit the ‘Russia has already invaded Ukraine’ meme (indeed by some counts of Kiev’s various “invasion” claims, Russia has done so upwards of 30 times).”

    I was, of course, referring to the invasion of the Crimea, not the later claims of invasion regarding the Donbas. The starting point for the blog post was that more people have now died in the current civil war in the Donbas than in the conflict in Kosovo prior to the NATO attack and thus “the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine today is far worse than that in Kosovo prior to NATO’s 1999 intervention” . I find it very strange to take “today” as a starting point for a hypothetical Russian humanitarian intervention, when in fact Russia has already intervened in Ukraine on the “humanitarian” grounds that it was seeking to forestall the repression of the Crimeans by the new government in Kyiv. At that stage, I do not think the victims of the violence in Kyiv even reached three figures.

    I also don’t know how you can divorce the invasion and annexation of the Crimea from the later violence (and I do accept that the post-Yanukvoych government has behaved terribly in many respects and that grievances among Donbas locals are genuine) — I believe Paul himself notes in one of the talks on this blog that the events in the Crimea gave the occupations of government buildings in the East a new impetus. This earlier “humanitarian intervention” is surely relevant to both the question of “clean hands” and the assessment of the whether Russian intervention works.


    1. The Crimean case, it seems to me, could be interpreted in two ways: the Russian takeover prevented the kind of war now taking place in Donbass; or it helped provoke that war. Probably, both are partly true.


      1. The difference between these two possibilities is that the first is hypothetical (we do not know what would have happened if Russia had not invaded) while the second we can observe. The bogus thing about the Russian justification of humanitarian intervention in the Crimea was that if there was a province where ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers were not at threat, it was the Crimea as there are no Ukrainian nationalists there to threaten them.

        But my point about Crimea was that it seems unusual to me to ask a hypothetical question (what would the Western response be to Russian humanitarian intervention?) for a scenario that in fact has already taken place.


  6. Crimea was not annexed. That is not even a matter for debate. It unilaterally declared itself independent of Ukraine, a precedent which was established as being outside international law on the occasion of Kosovo’s doing so and which was supported by the International Court of Justice at The Hague as legal, although the ICJ of course disapproved (in the case of Crimea, not Kosovo).


    The newly independent territory, which was already an autonomous Republic, then applied to join the Russian Federation, and was accepted. There was no “annexing”.


  7. Well, it clearly is a matter for debate as it is being debated. . .

    When a country sends in troops to the province of another country; installs a new government led by a party that received less that 5% of votes in the last election, organises a hasty referendum (the date of which is pulled forward at least once), sets a referendum question that does not allow for the maintenance of the status quo, anticipates the results of that referendum by declaring independence (reducing the referendum to the status of confirming the decision made), and invites a bunch of dodgy far right parties to acclaim that the referendum is free and fair, I call that annexation.

    Regarding the legality of the annexation, if you read German, you sould look at Otto Luchterhandt’s discussions of the topic.


  8. Mark is strictly speaking correct in narrow international legal terms – there was a reason for carrying out the process in two steps (declaration of independence, then unification), rather than one step (direct annexation from Ukraine). But, I am still willing to use the term ‘annexation’, as I consider it politically neutral and accurate in describing one country absorbing part of another.


      1. Thank you for the link, but I don’t find Merkel’s argument compelling. For example:

        “Gleichwohl war die russische Militärpräsenz völkerrechtswidrig. Auch wenn gerade sie einen blutigen Einsatz von Waffengewalt auf der Krim verhindert haben mag, verletzte sie das zwischenstaatliche Interventionsverbot. Das macht die davon ermöglichte Sezession keineswegs nichtig”.

        Merkel does not offer any argument as to why the illegality of the presence of Russian soldiers has no impact on the question of the legality of the referendum they enabled; he simply makes the claim that it does not and moves on.

        By contrast, Luchterhandt points to international resolutions condemning the declaration of independence by Northern Cyprus illegal because it took place while under occupation by Turkey. (http://www.ostinstitut.de/documents/Vlkerrechtswidrigkeit_der_Unabhngigkeitserklrung_und_des_Referendums_der_Krim.pdf).

        Luchterhandt also looks into more detail at how the referendum question changed (from being on independence to joining Russia) as it’s date was brought forward and was then forestalled by a declaration that did not seem to admit the possibilty of an outcome other than leaving Ukraine: independence was never a goal of the authorities put in place by Moscow, rather a neccessary stage through which they had to go to give it the appearance of legality.


      2. This passage in Merkel’s text is particularly problematic:

        “Die Zwangswirkung der russischen Militärpräsenz bezog sich weder auf die Erklärung der Unabhängigkeit noch auf das nachfolgende Referendum. Sie sicherte die Möglichkeit des Stattfindens dieser Ereignisse; auf deren Ausgang nahm und hatte sie keinen Einfluss. Adressaten der Gewaltandrohung waren nicht die Bürger oder das Parlament der Krim, sondern die Soldaten der ukrainischen Armee. Was so verhindert wurde, war ein militärisches Eingreifen des Zentralstaats zur Unterbindung der Sezession. Das ist der Grund, warum die russischen Streitkräfte die ukrainischen Kasernen blockiert und nicht etwa die Abstimmungslokale überwacht haben”.

        (1) He claims that the impact of the Russian military was not in the declaration of independence or the referendum but rather making possible the implementation of its result. This ignores the appearance of armed forces made the conditions for the calling of the referendum possible in the first place.

        (2) He claims that it was the Ukrainian army under threat from the Russian troops and not the Crimean population as seen by their stationing around the garrisons. This is a very rosy picture of the intimidating atmosphere in the Crimea at the time, especially as felt by the Crimean Tatar population.

        (3) In general this paragraph seems to be an attempt to deny the charge that Russia broke the “Allgemeines Gewaltverbot” of Art. 2 Chp. 4 of the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter (this is Luchterhandt’s argument for the illegality of Russia’s actions). However, if you are threatening the soldiers of a state rather than its population you are still using threat or use of force to undermine the territorial integrity or political independence of another.


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