MUNICH – The consequences of Russia’s intervention in Syria stretch far beyond the Middle East. The Kremlin’s military campaign has tilted the stalemate in favor of the government and derailed efforts to craft a political compromise to end the war. It also heralds the beginning of a new era in geopolitics, in which large-scale military interventions are not carried out by Western coalitions, but by countries acting in their own narrow self-interest, often in contravention of international law.
Since the end of the Cold War, the debate over international military action has pitted powerful, interventionist Western powers against weaker countries, like Russia and China, whose leaders argued that national sovereignty is sacrosanct and inviolable. The unfolding developments in Syria are further evidence that the tables are turning. While the West is losing its appetite for intervention – particularly involving ground troops – countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are increasingly intervening in their neighbors’ affairs.
In the 1990s, after genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, Western countries developed a doctrine of so-called humanitarian intervention. “The Responsibility to Protect” (colloquially known as “R2P”) held countries accountable for their people’s welfare and compelled the international community to intervene when governments failed to protect civilians from mass atrocities – or were themselves threatening civilians. The doctrine upended the traditional concept of national sovereignty, and in countries like Russia and China, it quickly came to be viewed as little more than a fig leaf for Western-sponsored regime change.
So it is ironic, to say the least, that Russia is using a concept similar to R2P to justify its intervention, only in this case it is defending the government from its citizens, rather than the other way around. Russia’s efforts are, in effect, an argument for a return to the era of absolute sovereignty, in which governments are uniquely responsible for what happens within their country’s borders.