So far, Russia has not (as far I have been able to find) made an official legal argument to justify its incursion in Ukraine. As I explained in exhaustive detail yesterday, it doesn’t have an argument, at least not a good argument. But that won’t stop it from making the best argument it can; what will it be?
In searching for precedents, the best one I can think of is the Kosovo intervention in 1999. Then, NATO forces led by the United States attacked Serbia in order to rescue Kosovo from “ethnic cleansing” by Serbian troops and paramilitaries. The United States, like Russia now, lacked UN authorization. The United States, like Russia now, refused to provide an international-law justification at the time of the intervention. Later, a quasi-official justification was ginned up: the invasion was “illegal but legitimate” (according to one source) because of its humanitarian purpose. Still later, some efforts (mainly by the UK) were made to create a customary-law exception to the UN use-of-force rules, one that permits humanitarian military interventions despite the absence of UN authorization. These efforts failed to change the law but nonetheless helped reconcile westerners to the idea of unilateral humanitarian interventions, helping George W. Bush to elicit liberal support for his intervention in Iraq in 2003, which also lacked UN authorization. Yet it is also clear that part of the motivation for the intervention was geopolitical: the U.S. and Europe sought to enhance control over the Balkans and in the process diminish Russian influence.
Another semi-precedent was the not-quite intervention in Syria by the United States in 2013. President Obama was prepared to use military force to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, again based on a mix of legal and interest-based motivations–to strengthen a norm against using chemical weapons, to protect civilians, and to weaken the Syrian government. Putin famously scolded the United States for disregarding international law, and Obama abandoned the plan–most likely because of the absence of domestic and international support, not because of the absence of a legal justification which he knew of in advance.
Putin could thus argue for an implicit or “evolving” exception to the rules against use of force when humanitarian concerns are at issue. To avoid contradicting his position on Syria, he can argue that the distinction is that he is responsible for protecting ethnic Russian inhabitants of Ukraine, and that the mixture of populations in Ukraine could fuel a civil war unless Russia moves quickly and firmly. In Syria, the civil war was already in process, and the United States did not even pretend that its intervention could end it. Punishing the Syrian government to deter other states from violating the chemical weapons taboo in the future was remote from the humanitarian goal of protecting civilians in Syria, and thus provided a weaker justification than was advanced in Kosovo. Moreover, the U.S. has frequently justified interventions in foreign countries to protect Americans. No Americans in Syria needed our military protection; millions of Russians live in Ukraine. And while we mean American citizens while the “Russians” in Ukraine are ethnic Russians who are citizens of Ukraine, this distinction may be lost on those with strong nationalist feelings. There is a long if somewhat disreputable history of countries claiming the right to protect co-ethnics who live as minorities in foreign countries, which draws on powerful nationalist emotions.
All that said, the factual basis for the Russian argument does not exist: as far as we know, no one is ethnically cleansing Russians, and if civil war occurs, it will mostly likely occur because of the Russians not despite them. So Putin may want to hold off on this justification for the time being and, like Bill Clinton, keep his mouth shut until the facts are more amenable to a legal justification. If atrocities against Russians ever take place, he can claim that he anticipated a humanitarian crisis. If they don’t, he can claim to have prevented one.
These thoughts were stimulated by this piece by Chris Borgen.