As Russia’s war against Ukraine moves into its sixth week, one of Moscow’s justifications for its unprovoked act of aggression against its western neighbor rests on its claimed right to protect ethnic Russians from discrimination in foreign countries. The Kremlin has tried to base this assertion on the language of fighting genocide and the United Nations’ principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Russia has distorted those principles, twisting them instead to justify its intervention in the internal affairs of countries such as Estonia and Kazakhstan and, in the case of Ukraine, outright invasion. It also has bent the notion of Russian citizenship to justify its malign influence and use of force against other countries.

A Ukrainian soldier digs a trench in Odesa, Ukraine, on Wednesday, on March 16, 2022, as they continued to prepare for a Russian attack on the strategic port city. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A Ukrainian soldier digs a trench in Odesa, Ukraine, on Wednesday, on March 16, 2022, as they continued to prepare for a Russian attack on the strategic port city. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Period of Upheaval and Change

Following a series of atrocities in the 1990s from Rwanda to Kosovo, the international community tried to identify what conditions would justify outside military intervention in a sovereign country’s internal affairs to prevent such tragedies from happening again. From those discussions, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle emerged. The objective of R2P was to mobilize international collective action to protect populations from war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity when a nation fails in its responsibility to protect its citizens. After the International Committee on Intervention and State Sovereignty developed R2P in 2001, the U.N. World Summit unanimously adopted it in 2005. There are three pillars to R2P: 1) Each state has the responsibility to protect its civilian populations from mass atrocity crimes; 2) The international community has the responsibility to support states in meeting this protection responsibility; and 3) When a state fails to protect its civilian populations, the international community should be prepared to take appropriate action together in accordance with the U.N. Charter.

These discussions about genocide prevention and military intervention coincided with Russia’s economic recovery in the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet collapse and its search for national identity in the first years of Putin’s presidency. Living in a country that had long been a multinational empire, it was difficult for many Russians to accept that many of their ethnic brethren now lived in foreign countries. As a result, under Putin, the Kremlin began to assert a broader conceptualization of “Russianness” that extends beyond internationally defined territories and borders. Redefining what it means to be Russian provides a way for the Russian state to project power and assert its influence in the internal affairs of its neighbors. Thus, the Kremlin enacted a series of laws, programs and policies designed to address the status of ethnic Russians abroad, some of which provided the Kremlin with a convenient pretext for alleging discrimination. (It mattered little that those countries had already drawn up their citizenship laws designed to accommodate their ethnic Russian minorities.)

Putin and the Russian World

Russia’s responses to a series of national protests in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the early to mid-2000s served as a testing ground for Russia’s evolving understanding of its “responsibility to protect.” During Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in late 2004 into early 2005, Russia claimed that the protests could lead to genocide against ethnic Russians. (An incantation that mirrored aspects of NATO’s moral justification for intervention in Kosovo.) In the years following the unanimous U.N. agreement on the R2P principle, Russia found greater justification for its military intervention by portraying ethnic Russians in post-Soviet countries as vulnerable groups needing protection from hostile governments. Russia’s distortion of R2P has largely focused on pillars one and two of the principle and ignored pillar three on working in accordance with the U.N. Charter and through collective action with other countries.

In 2008, Russia argued that part of the reason for its military action in Georgia stemmed in part from the harm ethnic Russians faced from the Georgian government. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during the war that the Russian constitution required military action because of Russia’s “responsibility to protect.” This justification represented a distorted merging of the R2P principle, protection for vulnerable groups, and undermined moral authority for humanitarian intervention. Facing minimal international repercussions for its actions, Russia’s reasons for using force in Georgia established a dangerous precedent that it would repeat in different permutations in the years after. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 continued linking protection for ethnic Russians to military intervention. However, in this conflict, Russian-backed leaders in Donetsk participated in the Kremlin’s propaganda effort to justify the violence in eastern Ukraine. Claims of genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians increased in 2014 and have continued to the present war, as the Kremlin sought to provide a justification for its invasion. In recent speeches, Putin stated that Russia is protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from genocide. However, this justification is gaining little traction outside of Russia. On March 16, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a preliminary ruling that determined Russia did not have grounds to attack Ukraine based on claims of genocide and ordered Russia to stop its military operations in Ukraine and its support for armed forces in eastern Ukraine to further Russia’s war.

Courses of Action

Russia’s unprovoked military aggression against Ukraine raises several challenges for the international community. 

First, Russia’s use of R2P language and discourses around genocide should lead the United Nations and its member countries to seriously consider how to prevent future distortions of the R2P principle as a pretext for unrestrained military aggression. If the international community does not hold the Russian government accountable for its use of R2P and unfounded claims of genocide, there will be no limit on how future leaders, particularly autocrats, will use claims R2P and corrupt interpretations of humanitarian intervention norms to undermine the sovereignty of other states and weaken international law. 

Since R2P is non-binding among U.N. member states, it will be key for the international community to continue building a network of accountability tracking Russian attacks on civilians during the war and working through the U.N. General Assembly and with global institutions such as the ICJ and other organizations to make sure Russian crimes against Ukraine are not forgotten. In particular, countries should work with Ukraine in pursuing accountability of Russia’s crimes through international commissions and tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). The international community can link future sanctions to the ICJ preliminary ruling and not lift them until Russia complies with the ruling and other potential ICJ decisions about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. By using international institutions to debunk Russian claims of genocide, the international community can set precedent to prevent or at least hinder Russia from using R2P claims in the future for its military aggression.


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