Home / Global Governance and Human Rights / Russian Intervention in Ukraine: R2P Limits and reclaiming the Concept and Narrative
States must stand against those who hijack it, however, by its very nature, R2P is a political tool and tensions exist with the ideological nature of international law.

Russian Intervention in Ukraine: R2P Limits and reclaiming the Concept and Narrative

11 April, 2015

By Sarah de Geest – Research Assistant

The recent Russian direct- and proxy- interventions in Ukraine has put the international community in a rather difficult position. Mr. Putin decided to unilaterally dismiss the existing procedures of Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter, intervening in- and breaking up the territorial integrity of Ukraine in order to ensure the protection of a Russian speaking minority.[1] For good measure, Mr. Putin initiated this protection scheme at an important Russian leased warm water port in Sevastopol, ensuring its future access to the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

R2P is not yet a universally accepted principle, but it has become an important norm through which the West hopes to frame its global guardianship. R2P is to be differentiated from humanitarian intervention since humanitarian intervention is only one of the available responses tied to the R2P principle. However, the concept has been contested, with Russia snubbing R2P as a modern day remnant of the West’s colonial rule, despite being the first to apply the concept in Georgia in 2009.[2] Similarly, in the case of Crimea, Mr. Putin described its intervention in Crimea as a humanitarian project, alluding that the mission could be extended to Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine as the situation required.[3] Observers have argued that Russia uses the R2P narrative as a veil, as its actions are potentially destabilizing a nation so as to sustain its sphere of influence in Eurasia. As reminiscent of the past as this clash of Russia and the West may seem though, this is not a new cold war yet; it is a proxy civil war where one side has been receiving Russian military support under the veil of the “responsibility to protect”. It is up to the Western nations to reaffirm the limits of R2P and humanitarian intervention and to counter Russian propaganda.

Recently the Economist has summarised the ongoing situation in an opinion piece that seeks to find Mr. Putin’s motives for his behaviour concerning Ukraine. The piece concluded that, either way, Ukraine is helpless to resist Russia without outside aid, and it plainly suggests that whatever Mr. Putin’s motives are – he wins.[4] One would hope there is at least one lesson to be learned here, and with some luck this lesson helps add to a workable and morally firm approach to humanitarian intervention in name of R2P. Humanitarian intervention itself is a conceptual hybrid residing on the crossroads of Human Rights, International Law and International Relations. Mainly, there is a clear need for rules that are normatively underscored and politically enforceable.

Michael Ignatieff is one of the scholars that helped articulate the R2P principle at the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001[5]. Later, in a 2014 address at Chatham House, he touched upon the different ways[6] in which Mr. Putin has mangled R2P’s imminent (and not so imminent) purposes:

  • Who do we protect: we should protect everyone, not just ethnic Russians or citizens who identify themselves as Russian. For example, this protection should have extended to the victims of February 18th in Kiev where 25 demonstrators died and more than a thousand were wounded in the violent clashes with the police[7],
  • The threat itself: it is pertinent that the threat embodies serious mental and bodily harm, for example ethnic massacre and genocide. In Ukraine there was no known threat that amounted to this “just cause threshold”[8],
  • How do we protect: What are the limits that are both legally and practically implied? Should unilateral action be allowed? Should Russia be allowed to essentially lead Crimea on a fast track unilateral secession?

Before we analyse the Russian narrative further, we should commence by looking at the definitions and conditions that are associated with R2P in the international community. In the context of international law, R2P was originally proposed in 2001 as a “morally acceptable backbone” to humanitarian intervention, with the focus being on the protection of populations rather than on intervening to alter the style of governance of a sovereign state. Since the norm was introduced to the international community in 2001, the R2P narrative was mentioned by the UNSC in several resolutions[9]. However, R2P has only been cited explicitly to legitimate military force in the case of the recent interventions in Libya and the Central African Republic.[10]

Mr. Putin is easily appropriating Western rhetoric because the US and Europe themselves have been struggling to align what they say with what they do – in other words, in the context of arguments for legitimate intervention, the US and Europe have a credibility problem. An example of this is the Iraq war. Many advocates of the war changed their position on the legitimacy of that war since arguably it “was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter, and because no such slaughter was then ongoing or imminent”.[11] While Human Rights Watch never supported the war in Iraq, they voice this critique as they refuse to support humanitarian intervention that involves state interests other than immediate humanitarian relief. While this stance is ideologically consistent, it creates practical difficulties. The cynical misuse many feel has taken over humanitarian intervention and R2P as a whole, is only dangerous if one fails to appreciate the humanitarian benefits of the intervention and blatantly ignores conditions such just cause and the principle of collective action. Whilst we should question motives and interests, we should question intervention and taking action, but we should also appreciate that these interventions are run by states and by national military (and/or combined military) efforts. As long as world governance is out of reach, states are the primary actors and states have interests beyond the pure ideology of humanitarian relief.

The basic principles[12] set out by the International Commission of Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) are:

  • State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself.
  • Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.

In recent times other scholars have further elaborated on these principles and there have been several attempts to define conditions that would justify humanitarian intervention. More often than not, the minimum requirement for any of them is the presence of crimes against humanity (CAH) while the execution is bound by the principle of collective action. Scholars have said humanitarian intervention is legitimate when:[13]

  • The UNSC system is deadlocked and a resolution is unavailable,
  • A humanitarian crisis such as war crimes/crimes against humanity/genocide/ethnic cleansing is ongoing, evidence of extreme humanitarian distress in need of immediate relief, a humanitarian crisis is disruptive to the international order and gives rise to article 51 of the Charter (state right to self-defence),
  • Use of force should only be allowed to stop the illegal state actions and must be necessary, proportionate and with the goal of humanitarian relief, for the sole purposed of ending the atrocities and restoring human rights,
  • No peaceful solution is possible, it must be clear that there is no practicable alternative other than intervention – if lives are to be saved,
  • Stress on collective action, no one state should unilaterally take action. Some say this should also entail support (or at the very least non-objection) by the majority of the UN member states.

These carefully thought up conditions have been weighed in situations other than Ukraine. A recent example would be the situation in Syria. Though no consensus has been reached within the UNSC on what action to take, most agree that humanitarian intervention is warranted by the fact that Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against parts of its population.[14] On the other side of the spectrum, when Russia emerged at Crimea’s border and shortly after took control of the peninsula, Mr. Putin claimed he did so because he had the “responsibility to protect”:

  • Protect those who opposed the Euromaidan coup (supposedly for example Russian speakers in Crimea) who were “threatened with repression” as well as Russian speaking minorities in general.[15]
  • Against “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” who executed the illegal and unconstitutional coup and remain in power. For emphasis he adds “we can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War I.[16]
  • He furthermore legitimises the use of force (invasion and annexation of Crimea) by means of parliamentary approval. He adds to this that Yankovich (who he deems legitimate yet powerless) and the Crimea Prime Minister called on Russia to use military force to “protect their lives and rights”.[17] He adds that Russian speaking population of Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine are worried about “uncontrolled crime” and this could possibly warrant intervention.

Objectively assessing these arguments, and while recognising the serious and real internal struggles and tensions[18] in Ukraine are real and important, they are not grounds for unilateral secession or unilateral humanitarian intervention. At the time, ethnic Russians were not being slaughtered or in any systematic physical harm. The specific repression Mr. Putin speaks of does not legitimise Russia’s intervention. Critics have argued that interest-based intervention is a modern-day version of imperialism.[19]

Going too far – intervening when there is no humanitarian crisis, such as in Ukraine – is just as harmful to the concept of R2P as failing to act when a humanitarian crisis is blatantly obvious. However tricky the balance between humanitarian relief and state interests are, it is important that people do not suffer for the sake of ideological purity, disregarding all other factors. Political will (influenced by state interest) unfortunately triumphs over humanitarian considerations and we see grotesque examples of this taking place in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, Russian political will led to intervention without legitimation and in Syria conditions are fulfilled but there is no political will (and political opposition by Russia and China) to act upon the crisis. This is why it would be good to factor in – or at least not outright reject – political will and state interests when considering the application of R2P. As a principle, R2P should operate independently of state interests, but unfortunately it is driven by political will and that has to be factored into any assessment of the principle, as a whole overhaul of R2P would be needed to avoid this. Those interests would always need to come in as secondary motivations. Ukraine and Syria are two very good examples of the consequences of action and inaction.

In conclusion, R2P should be a tool that countries can reach for in those instances where a real humanitarian crisis is ongoing and the UN or other international humanitarian relief is failing. Solid appreciation and a morally and politically relevant concept of R2P might help us to prevent statements such as:

Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said: “2014 was the darkest year yet in this horrific war. Civilians are not protected as the Security Council promised they would be, their access to relief has not improved and humanitarian funding is declining compared to the needs. It is an outrage how we are failing Syrians.[20]

In order to protect the integrity of the principle, states must stand against those who hijack it, however, it should also be recognised that by its very nature, R2P is a political tool and tensions exist with the ideological nature of international law. It is paramount that countries do not become paralysed by historical and ideological critiques when collective action is a moral imperative.


[1] Full text and analysis of Putin’s Crimea Speech, The Nation, 19 March 2014, http://www.thenation.com/blog/178914/full-text-and-analysis-putins-crimea-speech.

[2] Russia, Georgia and the Responsibility to Protect, http://amsterdamlawforum.org/article/view/58/115.

[3] “…and if the people ask us for help, while we already have the official request from the legitimate President, we retain the to use all available means to protect those people. We believe this would be absolutely legitimate. This is our last resort.” see full text at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-putin-defends-russian-intervention-in-ukraine/2014/03/04/9cadcd1a-a3a9-11e3-a5fa-55f0c77bf39c_story.html.

[4] The Economist explains, What Russia is up to in Ukraine, http://t.co/AOIkQiEB6s.

[5] Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001, http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf.

[6] M. Ignatieff, “Is the age of intervention over?”, 19 March 2014, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/home/chatham/public_html/sites/default/files/20140319AgeofIntervention.pdf.

[7] 25 reported dead and more than 1000 wounded, 19 February 2014, http://www.kyivpost.com/content/kyiv/renewed-violence-breaks-out-today-near-ukraines-parliament-at-least-one-injured-336993.html.

[8] Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001, http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf.

[9] For example Resolutions on Darfur, Libya and Mali.

[10] Resolution 1970 on Libya and Resolution 2127 on CAR.

[11] War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention, 25 January 2004, http://www.hrw.org/news/2004/01/25/war-iraq-not-humanitarian-intervention.

[12] Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001, http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf.

[13] Different conditions distilled from “Intervention: when, why and how?” Humanitarian Intervention Centre for UK Parliament, 2013-14, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmdfence/writev/intervention/int10.htm.

[14] Statement: Possible Intervention Syria, Human Rights Watch, 28 August 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/08/28/statement-possible-intervention-syria.

[15] Crimea Crisis: Russian President Putin’s speech annotated, 19 March 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26652058.

[16] Crimea Crisis: Russian President Putin’s speech annotated, 19 March 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26652058; Full text and analysis of Putin’s Crimea Speech, 19 March 2014, http://www.thenation.com/blog/178914/full-text-and-analysis-putins-crimea-speech.

[17] Putin: Intervention in Ukraine would be humanitarian, 4 March 2014, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/world.php?yyyy=2014&mm=03&dd=04&nav_id=89510,

[18] Like economic pressure, austerity and unequal treatment of linguistic groups.

[19] G.J. Bass, Freedoms Battle: The origins of Humanitarian Intervention, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, p.11.

[20] Syria Lights extinguished after 4 years crisis, Human Rights Watch, 12 March 2015, http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/12/syria-83-lights-extinguished-after-4-years-crisis.

About Sarah De Geest

Sarah De Geest is a Research Assistant in the Global Governance division. She holds two Masters of law with distinction from KULeuven and the School of Oriental and African Studies.