U.S. pronouncements on international law carry little weight with Russia

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

As Washington responds with shock and outrage over the deployment of Russian troops to the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that if violence spreads in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin reportedly said that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken – mainly sending troops to serve as a buffer between Ukrainian military forces and the local population – were appropriate given the “extraordinary situation.”

This situation includes outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian loyalists, as well as official acts of the newly formed Ukrainian government that have been widely seen as discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. Last week, pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea Region, leading to several hospitalizations and at least two deaths.

“Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations,” reported RT.

Further, Russia’s Federal Migration Service said it has seen a sharp spike in applications from Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge from outbreaks of violence following a U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. As RIA Novosti reports,

The head of the migration service’s citizenship department, Valentina Kazakova, said 143,000 people had applied for asylum in the last two weeks of February alone.

“People are afraid for the fate of those close to them and are asking not just for protection, but also to help them receive fast-tracked Russian citizenship,” Kazakova said. “A large number of applications are from members of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and government officials fearing reprisals from radically disposed groups.”

Many people living in Crimea, a 10,000-square mile peninsula on the Black Sea with historical and linguistic ties to Russia, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed far-right ultranationalists who intend to roll back the rights of Russian-speakers and restrict Crimea’s links with Russia itself.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Ukrainian government following the ouster of President Yanukovych have largely confirmed these fears. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, began immediately moving to prohibit the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine and block broadcasts of Russian television and radio programs in the country.

The Verkhovna Rada’s repeal of the law on the “Principles of the State Language Policy,” which provided for the use of the Russian language in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, could lead to further division and unrest, warned the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors.

“The authorities have to consult widely to ensure that future language legislation accommodates the needs and positions of everyone in Ukrainian society, whether they are speakers of Ukrainian, Russian or other languages,” said Thors.

ukraine_map_region_language

In response to the blocking of Russian broadcasts, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in a letter to Oleksandr Turchinov, Acting President of Ukraine and Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, that “Banning broadcasts is one of the most extreme forms of interference in media freedom and should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.”

It is in this context of official suppression of Russian rights, as well as the sporadic violence leading to a dramatic spike in asylum seekers, that Putin sought authorization from the Russian Parliament to deploy military forces to Crimea. Putin said he proposed military action because of “the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation,” and the Parliament passed his proposal unanimously.

Although no shots have been fired by the Russian troops and a Ukrainian colonel was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian and Russian sides had “agreed not to point our weapons at one another,” the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine is being denounced in the strongest terms by U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Appearing on ABC News’ This Week on Sunday, Kerry said,

What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki Final Act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement. Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G-8.

If the United States had a truly free press, the outrage expressed by the U.S. Secretary of State over the Russian deployment of troops and its alleged violation of international law would lead any honest journalist to follow up with a question like, “Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but how can you possibly feign such outrage with a straight face when we all know that the U.S. has repeatedly invaded foreign countries and habitually violated the UN Charter with impunity for years? What gives the United States the moral authority or credibility to be the arbiter of international law and the legitimate use of force?”

Instead, George Stephanopoulos followed up with, “I understand it’s a violation, sir. So what’s the penalty for what Russia has already done?”

To which Kerry responded:

Well, we are busy right now coordinating with our counterparts in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the president of the United States had an hour and a half conversation with President Putin. He pointed out importantly that we don’t want this to be a larger confrontation. We are not looking for a U.S.-Russia, East-West redux here. What we want is for Russia to work with us, with Ukraine. If they have legitimate concerns, George, about Russian speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country. They have the ability to work with the government, they could work with us, they could work with the UN. They could call for observers to be put in the country. There are all kinds of alternatives. But Russia has chosen this aggressive act, which really puts in question Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s willingness to be a modern nation and part of the G8.

Incidentally, the 90-minute phone call between Putin and Obama that Kerry referred to was initiated by the Russian president, who called Obama to explain why Russia was sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government released a statement on the phone call, which reads:

In response to the concern shown by Barack Obama regarding possible plans of the use of Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative criminal acts by ultra-nationalist elements, which are in fact encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev.

The Russian President stressed the existence of real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that in the case of further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

The White House’s readout of the phone call was quite different. According to an account posted on the White House website,

President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act. The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. …

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

It is clear from this statement that the United States is committing itself to a confrontational course that intends to rally the world in isolating the Russian government, including perhaps by expelling Russia from the G-8. But as the AP reported on Saturday,

Despite blunt warnings about costs and consequences, President Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the center of an emerging conflict between East and West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.

“There have been strong words from the U.S. and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”

Perhaps what the U.S. hopes is that simply reminding Russia of its “obligations under international law” will somehow lead to changes in Russian policy; that Moscow will just bend to the will of Washington on this issue. The problem is, U.S. pronouncements about international law are largely empty rhetoric, and no one is more aware of this than the Russians.

It was just last summer that the Russian government was admonishing the Obama administration for its drive to war with Syria, largely basing its opposition to a possible U.S. bombing campaign on the grounds of international law.

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The New York Times, “despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. … It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

Putin also chided the U.S.’s over-reliance on military force to settle its disputes, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the narrowly averted intervention in Syria:

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

With all those military interventions in its recent past – all carried out in violation of the UN Charter – the U.S. is certainly in no position now to lecture Russia on international law, and Moscow knows this.

Then of course, there is also the matter of the U.S.’s drone wars – the ongoing remote-controlled bombing campaigns of countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, published the second report of his year-long investigation into drone strikes, highlighting dozens of strikes where civilians have been killed.

The report identifies 30 attacks between 2006 and 2013 that show sufficient indications of civilian deaths to demand a “public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force” under international law.

But somehow the U.S. manages to get a pass when it comes to these unpleasant realities, and is able to maintain a veneer of credibility when it rebukes others for violating international law. At least as far as Russia’s concerned though, these rebukes are not likely to work.

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