Consistency and Change in Russian Approaches to International Law

The latest Russian conduct on the planet stage—and a lot less metaphorically, on the territory of Ukraine—has been appalling. Violations of international law (these types of as functions of aggression and unlawful assistance for insurgents or mislabeled peacekeeping operations) adopted assurances that no attack on its neighbor was planned or would happen.

These days 1 may well be forgiven for concluding that Russia’s watch of its international legal obligations mirrors the quip of previous French President Jacques Chirac: “My claims only bind those who feel them.”  At least Chirac appeared to converse in jest. In global regulation, pacta sunt servanda is a fundamental pillar.

This article introduces elements of regularity and transform in Russia’s normal method to worldwide law. It then focuses on the particular case in point of Russia’s deteriorating fascination in its obligations in the Council of Europe and less than the European Convention on Human Legal rights.

The root of the problem of Russian membership in intercontinental organizations—particularly people devoted to human rights—has normally been apprehension that exclusion was even worse than inclusion. No these problem can moderately now keep on being.

Imperial and Soviet Pasts

Russia rightly features many optimistic contributions to intercontinental regulation. The 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration frames Sean Watts’s discussion in this sequence on Molotov cocktails. It must be remembered that both the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conferences were convened at the invitation of Tsar Nicholas II. A different is the Martens Clause (named right after diplomat and international law firm Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens) that saved the 1899 convention and pseudonymous convention reappears in abbreviated form in the Geneva Conventions and More Protocols and describes a basic aspect of customary international law in this industry. The Martens Clause continues to be helpful in this conflict Air Commodore W. H. Boothby reviewed it in this sequence pertaining to cluster munitions.

Historical past also holds reminders of Russian irredentism. In late November 1939, the USSR invaded Finland, previously a grand duchy of imperial Russia (which adopted Soviet profession of jap Poland and preceded the annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). The Wintertime War lasted 104 times owing to the resilience of vastly overmatched Finnish soldiers, but eventually led to Finland’s defeat and loss of approximately 11% of its territory (which continues to be section of Russia).

The final meaningful, substantive act of the League of Nations was to expel the Soviet Union (a founding member) for this intense war. The USSR denunciation of this “absurd decision” sounds eerily common.  The Soviet Union accused Western powers of hypocrisy, arguing that “Britain and France have forfeited both the moral and the formal suitable to converse about anybody’s ‘aggression.’” The USSR characterized invasion as defensive action needed to the security of Leningrad and the freshly identified “People’s Government of the Democratic Republic of Finland” and asserted the intention to protect “the legitimate will of the people today of Finland” versus the “bankrupt” “clique” of its “former rulers.”

From USSR to Russian Federation

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 marked a shift in wondering about the (geographically diminished) Russian Federation’s international legislation obligations. A single change needed a new viewpoint on fourteen non-Russian locations that Soviet leaders (like imperial Russian rulers) had regarded subordinate to Moscow. Now they had been to be recognized as equal, legal rights-bearing sovereign States.

Reduction of what Russia called the “near abroad” was aggravated by the reignition of frozen conflicts that procedures to command non-Russian ethnic groups and the Soviets’ nominally federal governance technique experienced managed with various success. A hugely centralized, a person-occasion State experienced expended seventy-three yrs dividing, shifting, and often forcibly deporting Russian and non-Russian populations within just fake inner borders. Military, industrial, and other resources have been scattered all through the USSR without anticipating the want to divide the spoils.

Violence in between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988, for example, predated the Soviet collapse. Other conflicts, this kind of as the Russian imposition in 1992 of a “peacekeeping” armed forces power amongst the previous Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine pursuing the development of a “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic” (Transnistria), presage one particular modus operandi of the current disaster. The use of “peacekeeping” forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to provoke war with Ga in 2008 provides a different illustration.

Right before the Soviet Union collapsed, but soon after Ukraine’s parliament declared its independence, Russian President Boris Yeltsin threatened Ukraine’s management that departure would open the problem of the legitimacy of its borders, specifically about Crimea and the Donbas. Concern above the Soviet nuclear arsenal, significantly of which was found in Ukraine, developed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It offered, inter alia, that the events “respect the independence and sovereignty and the current borders of Ukraine.” Other lawful arrangements demarcated manage of Soviet military and naval installations, such as the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

Put up-Soviet Ambitions: Russia and Europe

Other, much more conceptual, shifts led to profound modifications in Russia’s global relations. The 1993 Russian Structure moved away from a dualist view of intercontinental regulation to which the Soviet Union adhered to undertake a much more monistic method. Posting 15(4) of the Structure declares:

The universally-identified norms of intercontinental legislation and international treaties and agreements of the Russian Federation shall be a component portion of its legal procedure. If an intercontinental treaty or arrangement of the Russian Federation fixes other principles than those envisaged by legislation, the rules of the worldwide settlement shall be applied.

Russian law scholars debate the metes and bounds of this improve, but it was alter nevertheless.  Importantly, it opened space for Russia to sign up for the Council of Europe and accede to the European Conference on Human Legal rights. But the arc of that membership traces a trajectory of improve in Russian views toward these treaty obligations.

In 1992, when Russia sought membership, it was determined to be part of any firm that would settle for it. The summary of lawful industry experts and rapporteurs for the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly was that Russia did not fulfill the lawful criteria for admission. This was not positively challenged by Russia’s 1994 commencement of a brutal navy campaign in Chechnya although its software was pending. But political stress to grow the Council finally received the working day with the argument that “integration is improved than isolation co-operation is much better than confrontation.”

Superior Outside or Better In?

Inclusion in the Council of Europe necessary ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, which occurred in 1998. Significantly fantastic came out of that worldwide legal obligation in conditions of domestic authorized reforms mainly completed for the duration of Vladimir Putin’s to start with presidential term.

But the needs of membership have proved to be burdens that Russia ultimately decided it would not carry on to bear. Russia has 17,013 pending cases—more than any other Member Condition. In 2021, Russia experienced 232 violations adjudged from it—again a consistent “first-place” among 47 Member States. These violations contributed additional than any other Condition to the bottleneck in the Strasbourg Court’s overcome docket. Quite a few violations are systemic, recurring failures or indifference to enforcement, bringing to mind the quip of the Russian imperial satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin that “the severity of the legislation is compensated by the non-obligatory mother nature of their observance.”

Some violations worry not only the European Conference but resonate with other international conventions and customary norms. The Courtroom a short while ago discovered Russia liable for the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by its agents in London. Inter-Condition situations brought by Ga and Ukraine—themselves Member States of the Council of Europe—raise various problems at the core of the legislation of armed conflict and international human rights regulation (not least of which is the stealth annexation of Crimea) by way of the lens of the European Conference.

As Russian violations of the Conference grew, Russia changed its see of its obligations. In 2015, a new Russian law subordinated judgments of the European Court of Human Rights to judgments of the Russian Constitutional Court. Upon a discovering by the Russian court of a “discovered contradiction” with the Russian Constitution, compliance with Strasbourg’s judgment is forbidden.


Until finally lately, the Council of Europe has often criticized Russia, even briefly denied its representatives’ voting proper, but been unwilling to solid Russia wholly out. The hope has been as it was in the commencing: “integration is better than isolation co-procedure is superior than confrontation.”

That hope seems even a lot more uncertain. In the words and phrases of Alain Pellet, Russia’s counsel just before the Environment Court docket until finally 23 February, “it has turn into impossible to depict in forums focused to the software of the legislation a country that so cynically despises it.”


Jeffrey Kahn is College Distinguished Professor of Legislation and Gerald J. Ford Research Fellow at Southern Methodist College.


Image credit history: Jorge Láscar by using Flickr