Putin, Pretext, and the Dark Side of the “Responsibility to Protect”
Claims of genocide tend to get people’s attention. On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin broadcast a nationally televised address announcing his attack on Ukraine. He justified the invasion as necessary “to protect people who have been abused by the genocide of the Kyiv regime for eight years.” It was the culmination of an almost decade-long Russian argument utilizing the supposed humanitarian plight of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, namely ethnic-speaking Russians, to justify military aggression. In a day, Europe found itself thrust into the largest land war since World War II in the name of a responsibility to protect persecuted minorities.
Most alarming is the fact that Putin’s language mirrored many thinkers and leaders of the free world, embracing the theory termed “Responsibility to Protect,” known by security hands as “R2P.” Allegations of ethnic persecution long offered authoritarian leaders a powerful justification for belligerence. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin manipulated the notion of persecuted minorities to justify belligerence. Putin is simply the most recent amoral leader to leverage the alleged plight of minorities as a justification for war. However, unlike prior blood-thirsty leaders, in public decrees Putin now argues a façade of Western legal cover, emboldening his actions.
The well-intended theory of R2P likely served as an unwitting accelerant for Putin’s aggression, as Russia continually justified its actions by parroting the rhetoric of Western legal theorists while twisting its intent. Putin’s rhetoric goes beyond a trolling of the West. Instead, R2P emboldened Putin with a powerful lever for a domestic audience and intellectual cover on the international stage. Given the history and current events of Central and Eastern Europe, proponents of R2P should reconsider the theory as often no more than a pretext for aggression.
R2P’s Growth in the West
R2P is a political commitment ambitiously promising “a solution to one of the gravest issues in world politics — mass atrocities.” It is a political commitment to end crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide through three pillars: every state’s adhering to a responsibility to protect its own population, the international community’s pledge to assist states in the protection of their own population, and international action to intervene where a state fails to meet its responsibility to protect its people. At its core, R2P is grounded in a shift away from Westphalian national sovereignty and towards a universal responsibility to act against humanitarian calamities. Proponents of R2P offer a cheery history beginning in the 1960s, when a growing sense of human rights caused “an evolution in thinking … from a strictly state-centered system … to one in which the behavior of states towards their own citizens became a matter of international concern and scrutiny.” In the 1970s, the Carter administration argued at the United Nations that no country should claim the right to maltreat its citizens as “solely its own business.” Later, in the 1990s, humanitarian calamities of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 brought international outcry for action, finding expression through the principle of R2P. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, scholars, activists, and commissions supported the development of an international theory subjugating claims of sovereignty to requirements of humanitarian standards.
These efforts culminated at the 2005 World Summit where state leaders ratified a resolution declaring “[e]ach individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The novelty of the theory was an underlying understanding that Westphalian sovereignty might be subjugated to humanitarian needs. The resolution did not codify R2P as accepted international law and remained silent on enforcement should collective action through the United Nations fail.
Where a state allegedly fails in its obligation to safeguard their population, it is unclear the repercussions where the United Nations fails to act, as the body “neatly dodge[d] the more difficult question of what rules should govern a humanitarian crisis when both the State in question and the [U.N. Security Council] are unwilling or unable to act.” Given the structural challenges of the United Nations to respond with force to crisis, many notable academics and statespersons argued unilateral action as a necessity to enforce R2P. In practice, the theory is left in the position of toothless enforcement at the United Nations and an open debate to the natural follow-on question of unilateral action. Out of the same vein, given the United Nations’ structural inability to resolve questions of R2P, it is unclear who determines whether the appropriate level of humanitarian calamity is triggered for application of R2P due to a state’s failure to safeguard its people.
State practice suggests the unilateral exercise of R2P in the absence of U.N. authorization. Prior to R2P’s adoption at the World Summit, NATO’s action in Kosovo proceeded under the justification of a humanitarian intervention without U.N. Security Council resolution. Similarly, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, while not directly using the term “R2P,” clearly offered the intellectual underpinnings of R2P theory to justify the invasion of Iraq (among others), again without U.N. authorization. Scholars again proposed R2P as a theory for intervention in the Middle East during the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In sum, state practice could be argued as favoring unilateral intervention over the slow or implausible route of international consensus.
The Dark History of Responsibility to Protect
Putin’s assault on Ukraine demonstrates the darker potential of R2P theory and is based on a lengthy history. Proponents of R2P, from Samantha Power to Ramesh Thakur, give scant attention to the troublesome history of violations of state sovereignty under the guise of protecting the citizens of another nation from humanitarian harm. Expansionist state leaders have long justified invasions or annexations by claiming the responsibility to protect supposedly persecuted favored ethnic groups within another nation’s borders. This history is most stark in Central and Eastern Europe, beginning with Hitler and Stalin.
In interwar Europe, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe were a patchwork of ethnicities. The issues presented by minority rights and nationalism were most acute in Central Europe, where approximately 25 million of the 35 million European ethnic minorities resided. Ethnic Germans, termed “Volksdeutschen” by the Nazi government, made up the largest number of the ethnic minorities living beyond the borders of their homeland. These ethnic Germans were viewed by the Nazis and their sympathizers as members of the German nation by blood, though residing beyond German borders. Following World War I, Germans at home became convinced international bodies would turn a blind eye to the abuse of Volksdeutschen minorities abroad.
Hitler skillfully manipulated the German people’s concern. In the lead-up to World War II, Nazi propaganda “used the Volksdeutschen … to transform the reality of German aggression into an illusion of the opposite.” In a 1939 speech, Hitler built a case for aggression based on tens of thousands of ethnic Germans who were “maltreated or put to death in the cruelest manner … and the pious democratic world looked on calmly without raising a finger.” Throughout World War II, the Nazi government consistently harped on the suffering of German minorities abroad, publishing unending memoirs of “Volksdeutschen” suffering.
German claims of Volksdeutschen abuse were wildly embellished and offered solely as a pretext for aggression. Yet despite the lies, they were effective. Hitler consistently leveraged “the Volksdeutschen as victims par excellence.” The historical record suggests such propaganda efforts were truly effective with the German people.
Stalin also utilized the alleged plight of ethnic minorities to justify aggression. Lenin may have sought to avoid Russian nationalism during the early idealistic days of the Soviet Union, but Stalin promoted an imperial view of Russian greatness. He asserted Russian and Belarusian ethnic minorities beyond Russian borders were abused and required protecting from their oppressors. Leading up to Stalin’s invasion of Poland and westward push, his arguments were especially pronounced. To this day, the Russian government celebrates its 1939 attack on Poland as a work of “liberation,” claiming the invading Red Army was “greeted … with jubilation” by the oppressed people west of their borders.
The Soviet government actively pushed ethnic Russians to the outer periphery of its territory in a bid to increase government influence and alter demographics in favor of the expanding Soviet influence. As a result, when the Soviet Union fell, it left 25 million ethnic Russians outside of their country of origin. Just like the Volksdeutschen in interwar Europe, ethnic Russians now make up sizable minorities in many former Soviet states beyond Russian borders. Many of these ethnic Russians, termed “Sootechestvenniki” (“compatriots”), share Stalin’s focus on Russian greatness and believe “Russia has an obligation to protect ethnic Russians living outside its borders.” Putin built on the Stalinist legacy of Russo-centrism, boldly declaring he will defend “compatriots abroad.”
It may be argued none of this unhappy history relates to the modern notion of R2P. But viewing the historical record in its entirety, the emergence of R2P offered Putin what should have been an easily foreseeable accelerant to his aggression under the guise of a supposed international norm. In hindsight, it is entirely predictable a theory offering credibility to intervention in sovereign states based on the protection of others would be leveraged by authoritarian leaders who long sought to intervene in sovereign states under the guise of the protection of others. R2P cites genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity as clear justifications of R2P. Such language unwittingly tapped into a long history of authoritarian justifications for aggression.
Putin’s Embrace of R2P
As Russia prepared for aggression against Ukraine, Putin’s arguments mirrored those made by Hitler and Stalin before him. However, Putin also could now twist supposed international law and practice as a powerful pretext. Putin explained his intent to end a non-existent genocide inside Ukraine. Western academics discussed the importance of peacekeeping missions to protect those who can’t protect themselves; and Putin agreed, arguing a hoax peace-keeping mission in Ukraine as necessary. Putin also echoed language of R2P in arguing the imagined plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine cannot wait. Scholars argue Putin saw R2P as an opportunity “to proffer an alternative basis for [R2P and] permissibly violating the non-intervention norm … [while also] pursuing an ideational agenda, advocating for a norm that enables states to act unilaterally to protect their ethnic kin endangered within another state’s territory.”
Putin’s government framed his war in Georgia as a pursuit of R2P principles, with his foreign minister deliberately invoking by name the principle of R2P. Putin again fully embraced R2P notions in support of his annexation of Crimea, calling it a “humanitarian mission” while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared “we are talking here … about protection of the most fundamental of human rights.” Similarly, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin publicly invoked R2P as a justification for the invasion. In December of 2021, as Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, Putin signed a decree on humanitarian support for people living in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions, claiming his acts of aggression were required “to protect human rights and freedoms [and] to provide humanitarian support,” declaring he took the decision “guided by the generally recognized principles and norms of international humanitarian law.” Seeking to play up the plight of the Sootechestvenniki, Russia went so far as to manufacture a video fabricating the aftermath of an attack on ethnic Russians, complete with corpses and mourning actors. As the war turned into a conventional slugfest, the Kremlin continued to assert R2P as justification. Of course, Putin’s aim is not to convince the West his cause is just. Instead, he leverages a Western theory to his domestic advantage while deflecting international criticism to give nations such as China intellectual cover for remaining largely neutral. Putin believes R2P offers powerful pretext for aggression in former Soviet territories based on a well-intentioned Western principle.
The Future of R2P
Proponents of R2P retain valid arguments even in the face of its misuse. As Putin bombs those he purports to protect, it is painfully obvious he is no promoter of human rights. Advocates of R2P correctly point out that the mainstream iteration of the theory holds that the use of force must be a last resort in the face of large-scale atrocities a government is unwilling or unable to halt. Clearly none of these precedents existed in Ukraine as Putin attempted to fabricate a grounds for invasion. But while Putin misappropriated R2P, it remains a theory without an effective enforcement mechanism and open to alternate interpretation.
Every international norm or theory of international law is open to manipulation. Putin invoked hoax claims of self-defense as an additional justification for his assault. Yet there is something unique about R2P and its self-righteous appeal to the moral protection of others, making it uniquely tailored to authoritarian misappropriation. Claims of humanitarian abuses often involve ethnic grievances, an information area history demonstrates as uniquely susceptible to confirmation bias. R2P also offers an opportunity for the full inquisition of an enemy which other theories do not. Self-defense and other mandates of international law are difficult claims when the opponent lays bloodied on the ground, as in Ukraine today. However, the need to stop alleged atrocities of one civilian neighbor against another is every strongman’s dream of carte blanche for ceaseless aggression. Out of this vein, Putin gleefully tore a page from the playbook of Putin and Stalin, creating a boogeyman for the domestic audience. He utilized R2P principles to promote many Russians’ “sincere belief that, in a world dominated by a hostile West, it is the righteous protector” who must uproot the entire Ukrainian system of government to end “genocide.” Claims of self-defense and other accepted theories of international law simply do not carry the baggage of such holy war rhetoric.
Furthermore, R2P proponents relying on the world’s wholesale acceptance of a new theory naively fail to recognize one of the U.S. military’s favorite truisms: “The enemy gets a vote.” As Western actors chide others on misapplication of R2P, it risks the appearance of “R2P for me, but not for thee.” When Westerners dismissed Putin as simply “distort[ing]” or “misus[ing]’” R2P, Putin parried such talk as smacking of Western exclusivism. After all, as some have argued, why can’t Russia be a source for new ideas about international rules as much as Canada? Words without shared meaning are also dangerous. In Russia and former Soviet states, the word “genocide” simply “became shorthand for anything deemed ‘absolute evil,’” giving an opening to manipulate the language of R2P.
While Putin’s arguments are no more than thinly veiled attempts to cover bloodthirsty aggression, it is important to note any actor’s motives are rarely completely pure and can easily be questioned. Russia asserted NATO’s use of R2P as no more than an excuse for regime change in Libya, China charged the West’s use of R2P as a cover for intervention, and India complained of the West’s highly selective use of the theory. Indeed, the events in Libya appeared to galvanize Putin’s view of the West’s as treacherously utilizing the principle of R2P for “crusades” in the Middle East. Following the utilization of R2P in Libya, Putin was reanimated as a leader in Russian foreign affairs, armed with what he viewed as fresh evidence of the West’s duplicitous nature. It is no accident that, following the first initial “triumph” of R2P, a reenergized Putin emerged intent on expansion. While there can be no moral equivalence between Russia’s and the West’s use of R2P, it remains a theory uniquely grounded in the good intentions of international actors and reliant on the subjective eye of the beholder.
None of this is to say that no future exists for R2P. An R2P theory with clear guardrails and a primacy on sovereignty may benefit the international community. But so long as R2P remains a theory with unclear parameters or enforcement methods, offering naïvely to solve genocide and war crimes, it will continue to be utilized as a tool of aggression. Rather than blithely labeling Russian aggression as a misuse or misapplication of R2P, proponents of R2P should also consider R2P’s history as a tool of hostile expansion. It should be no surprise to find Putin twisting the intent of R2P in a challenge to the West.
John Reid is an active-duty Air Force officer assigned as the Staff Judge Advocate for Special Operations Command Europe. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position Special Operations Command Europe, the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.