The author, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, argues that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s disingenuous attempt to put daylight between past Soviet imperial conduct and his own action should convince no one that the aggression against Ukraine is in any way distinct from the brute force meted out by his Soviet predecessors...
Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the international community fresh confirmation of his malevolent intentions earlier this month. This time, it came in the form of a dubious disavowal of Soviet imperialism. Attending the Eastern Economic Forum, an international gathering hosted by Russia to curry global investment, Putin was asked whether Russia had acted as a colonial power by invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In response, Putin claimed “this part of the Soviet Union’s policy was a mistake and did nothing but escalate tensions. A country’s foreign policy must not directly contradict the interests of other nations. That is all there is to it.”
Putin’s ostensible repudiation of Soviet aggression belies a deeper and deliberate connection he has patiently nurtured with Russia’s checkered Communist and imperial past. Most notable in this regard, in 2020, Putin ushered in significant amendments to Russia’s constitution, including the foreign policy obligation to ensure peaceful coexistence and noninterference. This new provision entrenched the same international legal doctrines previously championed by the Soviet Union to justify military interventions intended to demolish the sovereignty of neighboring states. Two years after heralding these constitutional reforms, Putin wielded them—like the Soviets before him—to validate his own armed aggression against Ukraine.
Putin’s resolve to constitutionalize Soviet international legal theory previously described as “depreciat[ing] the existing process of international norm-formation…to enlarge the role…reserved for the Soviet Union in those processes” is no coincidence. Translated into practice, Soviet peaceful coexistence and its distorted vision of noninterference furnished the USSR with international legal cover for an unfettered right “to invade any ‘socialist’ country whenever the rulers in Moscow decide[d] that capitalism threaten[ed] to replace socialism.” Part of this asserted right to protect the global spread of socialism simultaneously operated to preclude any international intercession critical of such “protective” actions. Thus, following the USSR’s 1956 intervention in Hungary, Soviet diplomats were quick to invoke peaceful coexistence and noninterference to reject any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) intrusion premised on its UN Charter mandate to maintain international peace and security. At the same time, the Soviets argued their armed aggression did not flout international law because the Hungarian Government was compelled to “liquidat[e] the counter-revolutionary uprising.”
Likewise in 1968, the USSR again spurned UNSC consideration of Soviet military intervention, this time in Czechoslovakia. On one hand, the Soviets rejected any UN ability to scrutinize Czechoslovakia’s “purely internal affair[s]” as “fictitious” and “groundless.” On the other, they predictably reserved the USSR’s own right of intervention premised on the obligation of “fraternal socialist countries [to] render assistance to the Czechoslovak people in its struggle against . . . the imperialist Powers’ attempts to turn that country from the socialist path.”
Contemporary Russia has plainly shed the socialist ideology attached to peaceful coexistence. However, Putin has jealously preserved the doctrine’s underlying asserted ability to meddle in neighboring states. Instead of invoking noble proletariat socialist interests against ruthless capitalism, Putin’s own thin ideological veneer seeks to empower a “Russian World” and Russian civilization as against the threats of “Nazification” and toxic westernization. As construed, this ostensibly defensive project is premised on a renewed emphasis on Russia’s millennial history, steeped in a primeval mission of imperialism and Orthodox values, which entitles Russia to reclaim not only its regional dominion in the post-Soviet space, but also its status as a great power on the global stage.
Alongside the new ideological driver for peaceful coexistence, Putin also has resuscitated the Soviet double standard informing nonintervention. At the landmark 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, President Boris Yeltsin’s administration condemned the Soviet approach to noninterference as “cunning” and “sad.” Despite this categorical rebuke, Putin has twisted his own take on noninterference enough to make the Politburo blush. He has consistently foreclosed international scrutiny ostensibly interfering in the “Russian World”, even while justifying Russian intervention in the internal affairs of other states, whether by leveling accusations of human rights violations of Russian compatriots or by deploying Russian armed forces across international borders.
Ukraine has long borne the brunt of this hypocritical approach to peaceful cooperation and noninterference. Russian attacks on Ukraine’s internal affairs—and thus on its very sovereignty—rapidly escalated after the Euro-Maidan Revolution of 2014. Emboldened by their constitutionalization, the Soviet principles of peaceful coexistence and noninterference have provided a convenient legal rationalization for Russia’s so-called 2022 “special military operation.” Days before the invasion, President Putin channeled Soviet rationales to challenge the legitimacy of Ukrainian sovereignty. But rather than rely on the USSR’s justification of protecting international socialism, he invoked the need to protect Russian civilization abroad against a litany of evils, including: Ukraine’s “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism”; the “destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”; the “policy to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation;” the “condemn[ing of] landmarks of [Russian] history to oblivion, along with the names of state and military figures of the Russian Empire”; and western ideology bent on imposing “attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”
Further mirroring the Soviet’s skewed application of noninterference in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Putin’s demand that the west not “intervene” in Russia’s invasion channeled the same double standard. On the eve of war, President Putin menacingly warned: “…for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside[…] No matter who tries to stand in our way . . . they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
In the end, President Putin’s disingenuous attempt to put daylight between past Soviet imperial conduct and his own action should convince no one that the aggression against Ukraine is in any way distinct from the brute force meted out by his Soviet predecessors. Rather than treat the policies that underwrote Soviet aggression and intervention as a “mistake”, Putin has constitutionalized them as lodestones for Russia’s contemporary foreign policy. This disposition—destabilizing as it is for international law in the post-Cold War era—is central for Putin’s larger objective of recapturing Russia’s lost imperial status and securing its place as a world power. Troublingly, it also signals the same naked pursuit of exceptionalism and dominance previously sought by the Soviet Union.
Robert C. Blitt is the Toms Foundation Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law.
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