Payback time for Russia

by Richard Weitz and Ramesh Thakur

You have to admire the chutzpah of the neocons for their castigation of Russia for attacking another country and emulating, in the Caucasus, NATO’s behavior in the Balkans. Who does Vladimir Putin think he is — U.S. President George W. Bush?

It was U.S. and NATO actions that set the precedent for flouting the rule of international law and violating long-settled collective norms of the international community against unilateral military interventions. Those who challenge or evade the authority of the United Nations as the sole legitimate guardian of international peace and security in specific instances undermine the principle of a world order based on international law and universal norms under U.N. authority.

If U.N. authorization is not a necessary condition for waging war lawfully and legitimately, then we must accept the resulting international anarchy and the law of the jungle in world affairs.

We no longer cede the right to any one state to use massive force within its borders free of external scrutiny or criticism. Claims for reversing the progressive restrictions on the right to interstate armed violence will be met with even more skepticism. To argue that NATO alone has the right to determine whether military intervention, by itself or any other coalition, is justified against others outside the coalition, is a claim to unilateralism and exceptionalism that will never be conceded by the “international community.” The claim that NATO should be set up as the final arbiter of military intervention by itself and every other coalition is breathtakingly arrogant.

In justification, Russia has pointed to Georgian complicity in killing thousands of South Ossetians, the fact that many of these are Russian citizens, the responsibility of Russia to protect its nationals, and the responsibility of the international community to protect South Ossetians from genocidal attacks by Georgia. Moscow is wrong to invoke the norm in this case, but no more so than the Americans and British were wrong in Iraq five years ago. Both actions prove the risks of unilateral interpretations and actions and the wisdom of channeling action through the U.N. Otherwise, the only certain end result is vigilante justice, which is no justice at all.

The U.N. Charter encapsulates the international moral code and best-practice international behavior. The urge to “humanitarian intervention” by powerful states, coalitions of the willing or regional organizations outside their own area of operations must be bridled by the legitimizing authority of the U.N. as our only available international organization for this purpose.

The second problem is the opposite one — of behaving as if geopolitics and realism belong on history’s shelf and have no relevance or applicability anymore. As Henry Kissinger is reported to have said after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands that roused the slumbering British lion into action to retake the islands by force, “a great power does not retreat forever.”

The end of the Cold War saw a very rare phenomenon in human history. Russia acknowledged its defeat and the new world order that came out of it. But instead of demonstrating grace in victory and some sensitivity to Russia’s legitimate fears, interests and national dignity, the West has repeatedly rubbed Russian noses in the dirt of their historic Cold War defeat.

Kosovo was detached from Russia’s Serbian ally and its declaration of independence readily recognized earlier this year. Instead of being dismantled with victory in the Cold War, NATO, an alliance in search of a role and mission, has progressively expanded its borders and reach steadily closer to Russia, slowly but surely encroaching on some areas that are part and parcel of Russian historical soul and identity.

Great powers have core vital interests that they will defend. Repeated warnings from Russia of red lines that must not be crossed were serially dismissed as the angry growls of a Russian bear in deep and permanent hibernation.

Russia has been encircled by Western bases, missiles and allies, while alternately taunted, ignored and dismissed. Champion chess players that they are, the Russians bided their time before checkmating the West brutally but brilliantly in South Ossetia and firing a warning shot across the bows of other former parts of the now forgotten Soviet empire.

No two situations are exactly alike. Still, much as most Westerners dismiss any analogy between Russia’s actions to pry South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from Georgia and NATO actions to detach Kosovo from Serbia, most others do accept the basic parallel.

Those who wish to back rebel movements and internationalize a crisis by intervening militarily had better be prepared for payback time in other places and conflicts. And for the moral hazards to come home to roost.

The wreckage of Georgia’s towns and countryside proclaim the ruins of the Bush administration’s foreign policy that has so recklessly squandered the hard won fruits of the Cold War in terms of both moral authority and geopolitical gains.

Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada. His book “The United Nations, Peace and Security” recently won the ACUNS 2008 Award for the best recent book on the United Nations system.