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Russia’s ‘spring’ of 2014

By Sascha-Dominik Bachmann

Russia’s offensive policy of territorial annexation (of the Crimea), the threat of using military force and the actual support of separatist groups on the territory of Ukraine has left the West and NATO practically helpless to respond. NATO seems to be unwilling to agree on a more robust response, thus revealing a political division among its member states. This unwillingness can partly be explained with Europe’s dependency on Russian gas supplies but also in the recognition of legal limitations and considerations, such as NATO’s Article 5 (which only authorizes the use of collective self defence in cases of an attack on a NATO member state).

Borrowing the term from the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” of the failed “Arab Spring” of 2011 which challenged the existing political landscape in the Maghreb, it does not seem farfetched to see the events of this spring as the emergence of a new power balance in the region. As it was the case with the two historical examples, the overall outcome will be different from what was initially expected. While some of the protests led, with the deposition of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, to actual regime change, soon the “old order” of autocratic governments was reestablished, as the cases of Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria show. It overall also brought Russia back into the region as the main player. Russia’s (re-)annexation of Crimea in April of 2014 is a fait accompli and unlikely to be revised anytime and the ongoing support of separatist groups in the eastern parts of Ukraine where the Russian speaking minority is in the majority, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, has seen an increase in open military combat.

Ukraine is already a divided country, with fighting taking place along its ethnic lines. The break-up of the old Yugoslavia in the 1990s and its ensuing humanitarian catastrophe may serve as a stark reminder of things to come. Yet, it is the prospect of such a civil war which has also removed the necessity for open Russian military intervention; Russia has begun to fight the war by proxy, by using covert military operatives and/or mercenaries. Reflecting these developments and having nothing further to gain from an invasion, Russia announced the withdrawal of regular combat troops from the border this week.

Perevalne, Ukraine - March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStockphoto
Perevalne, Ukraine – March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStockphoto

The changes to the world since the end of the “Cold War” in 1991 shaped the political landscape and also military strategy and doctrine. What we have seen so far was the evolving of a more liberal view on war as an instrument and continuation of politics — especially in the form of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Examples for this new liberalism in waging war, may be found in the US-led Iraqi campaigns of 1991 and 2003, the war in Afghanistan, Russia’s occupation of Georgian territories during the summer of 2008, the two Chechen campaigns and many more small scale interventions around the globe.

Some of these operations were questionable in terms of legality and legitimacy, and might qualify as the prohibited use of force in terms of Article 2(4) UN Charter. The planning and conducting of these operation would in the future fall within the scope of Article 8 bis of the ICC Statute (in its revised post Kampala 2011 version and coming in force only after 2017), potentially giving raise to criminal responsibility of the political leaders involved.

After adopting a ‘retro’ USSR foreign policy Putin needed and found new strategic allies. In May he entered into a gas deal with China which has the potential not only to disrupt vital energy supply to Europe but also to question the emergence of a future long term cooperation based on mutual economic interest and trust. If these developments herald the coming of a new ‘Cold War’ remains to be seen.

What is evident, though, is that the Cold War’s ‘Strategic Stability’ dogma, which prevented any military direct confrontation between NATO and the Soviet led Warsaw Pact, does not exist in the 21st century. New technologies such as ‘Cyber’ and the use of “New wars” along asymmetric lines of conflict” — which constitute “a dichotomous choice between counterinsurgency and conventional war” — will play a bigger role in the future conduct of hostilities. Such (multi-)modal threats have become known as ‘Hybrid Threats’. Recognized in NATO’s Bi-Strategic Command Capstone Concept of 2010, hybrid threats are defined as “those posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.” NATO decided in June 2012 to cease work on CHT at its organizational level but encouraged its member states and associated NATO Excellence Centres to continue working on Hybrid Threats.

Before the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the classification of the conflict as a ‘hybrid war’ by Ukraine’s national security chief, this decision might turn out to have been made too early.

Sascha-Dominik Bachmann is an Associate Professor in International Law (Bournemouth University); State Exam in Law (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), Assessor Jur, LL.M (Stellenbosch), LL.D (Johannesburg); Sascha-Dominik is a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Army Reserves and had multiple deployments in peacekeeping missions in operational and advisory roles as part of NATO/KFOR from 2002 to 2006. During that time he was also an exchange officer to the 23rd US Marine Regiment. He wants to thank Noach Bachmann for his input. This blog post draws from Sascha’s article “Targeted Killings: Contemporary Challenges, Risks and Opportunities” in the Journal of Conflict Security Law and available to read for free for a limited time. Read his previous blog post on drone killings.

The Journal of Conflict & Security Law is a refereed journal aimed at academics, government officials, military lawyers and lawyers working in the area, as well as individuals interested in the areas of arms control law, the law of armed conflict and collective security law. The journal aims to further understanding of each of the specific areas covered, but also aims to promote the study of the interfaces and relations between them.

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  1. […] As the Russian ‘spring’ of 2014 gained momentum, our law editors pulled together a debate map on the potential use of force in international law focused on the situation in Crimea. We also heard expert analysis from Sascha-Dominik Bachmann on NATO’s response to Russia’s policy of territorial annexation. […]

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