The Russian Approach to Human Rights Intervention

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | Contemporary Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Russian Approach to Human Rights Intervention


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, Contemporary Review


THE end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the only superpower raised several questions concerning the direction of the country's foreign policy. There is an assumption, at least among some representatives of the American elite, that the country should lead the world in a global implementation of 'human rights' (i.e. the liberal principles of the Western world). If needed, arms would be used for this very noble purpose. This option was favoured by, for example, R. Kaplan who elaborated on it in a recent issue of the New York Times. Yet these ideas are questioned. The new President Bush asserts that American foreign policy shall be shaped by national interests not by moral considerations. In this emphasis on pragmatism he, or at least his foreign policy advisers, acknowledge that it was not ideology but national interest which led America into confrontation with the USSR during the Cold War.

The post-Soviet Russians have become even more sceptical in regard to the moral underpinnings of 'humanitarian intervention'. Many of them have discarded not just the idea of humanitarian intervention but the idea of human rights, the liberal principles of Western capitalism in general. This decline in the interest in human rights in Russia has alarmed some observers who coined the expression 'Weimar Russia' implying that present-day Russians are similar to Germans who, upon disenchantment with Western liberalism, had installed a Nazi regime. Here the observers expressed similar concerns stating that nationalist-minded and cynical Russians would launch military intervention under the excuse of 'humanitarian intervention'. Based upon personal observations, I would argue that such a scenario would be unlikely precisely because of the deep cynicism as to any slogans which have marked presentday Russia.

The end of the Soviet regime in 1991 instilled most Russians with great expectations regarding their future and a deep fascination with the West. A majority of Russians indeed believed not only that 'human rights' were the very foundation of Western policy but that the foreign policy of the Western nations was guided by no other principles but moral considerations. Indeed, the principles of 'humanitarian intervention' were the very reason why the Western governments sent their troops. As time progressed the vision of foreign policy became increasingly critical. NATO's war with Serbia was clearly a watershed. I was in Moscow at that time and saw the drastic change of the mood even among longtime staunch liberals who had admired the West for their entire life. At that point there was a public consensus that 'humanitarian intervention' is a code word similar to 'international duty' which was used by arrays of Soviet leaders, including Brezhnev, as a code for imperial aggrandizement such as the invasion of Afgha nistan.

The Russians also bitterly complained that they were horribly deceived in their belief in the West's good will and gave up without a fight not just the Eastern European empire but the USSR itself just to see NATO divisions near Russia's almost sixteenth-century borders. They were genuinely afraid that the 'humanitarian intervention' could be used by the Western powers, which were now much stronger than Russia, to launch a war against Russia under the excuse of 'humanitarian intervention'. Assuming that all discussion on humanitarian aspects of intervention was nothing but a cover for geopolitical pragmatism and that the West was cynical to the marrow, the Russian elite started to use the same discussion on humanitarian aspects of intervention to cover the elite's interests. When Vladimir Putin was interviewed last year on American TV, he stated that one major reason to start the second war in Chechnya was the protection of Russian citizens from foreign invaders and mercenaries. It was a 'humanitarian interven tion' of a sort. It is clear that Russians became thoroughly cynical and discarded human rights and the thought that nations were engaged in wars just because of pragmatic considerations. …

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