HistoricalMullet: The Putin Doctrine

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In the fall of 2002, Putin released a national security doctrine which opened the door for limited military preemption. This set the stage for Bush to release his own national-security doctrine making the case for preemptive regime change. Post includes original commentary in first comment.

More ramblings on international affairs during a lunch break at work. There’s been more than enough written about the anniversary of 9/11 and I won’t add to it instead focusing on a news event many may have missed that I think is noteworthy of discussion. President Putin of Russia held a televised address and sent a letter to world leaders indicating that his country was considering imminent military action against Georgia an independent nation to the south of Russia (1).


On the surface this action is very similar to George Bushes call for military action against Iraq. What is important is the difference in language. Putin wrote: “If the Georgian leadership doesn’t take concrete actions to destroy the terrorists, and bandit incursions continue from its territory, Russia will take adequate measures to counteract the terrorist threat, in strict accordance with international law.”(4)  However he also stated, and here’s the key difference, that any action would not be: “directed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country” or “changing the political regime.”

This is pretty radical thought in international politics. Under the Westphalian system of diplomacy you don’t use the military to influence another nations internal affairs (2). No moral judgments are made on internal affairs and you respect the sovereign nation as sovereign. They can basically do whatever they want when they want as long as it stays inside their borders. This system has been weakened in the last few decades by purely humanitarian sponsored military interventions (Somalia, Kosovo) but is still very strongly recognized around the world. Bush is getting so much flak these days because his proposals on Iraq include the phrase “regime change”. No Westphalian diplomat likes to hear those words. It sets precedent of invading another country because you don’t like the government they have even if they haven’t done anything to you yet. No one argues a war against Germany after Germany has invaded a couple of its neighbors. Afghanistan under the Taliban was an easy sell, no one liked them.

Iraq, US feelings aside, is not nearly so easy a sell. The best case we can make for them is that they are developing weapons of mass destruction: however so is Israel, Palestine, India, and who knows how many other countless countries. We can add to this case that Saddam is an un-elected leader who does not represent the will of his people, brutally repressing humanitarian rights in his country but then again so are the leaders of China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and others. Who do we invade and why? Is it that Iraq then is a safe spot for terrorists? So is Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Chechnya, Columbia, Ireland, and in retrospect unfortunately the US and Germany. Putin’s proposal creates a middle ground though that recognizes the rights of a nation to protect itself as well as the needs of the international community to not encourage adventurism by changing regimes when they feel the need to.

By phrasing his action as striking only to counteract the terrorist threat, but at the same time respecting the sovereignty of Georgia, Putin creates a new potential doctrine of international policy. I’m not sure where I fall on the issue. To me regime changes are the only sure way to ensure a recalcitrant country that sponsors terrorism becomes inhospitable to those terrorists. However it also opens up the breakdown of Westphalian protections that are well set in international law. Do we invade North Ireland because terrorists are harboring there? What about Saudi Arabia because they’re neither democratic nor very friendly to their people? I do like some aspects of Putin’s proposal. It sets the precedent of a nation being able to invade another country militarily to protect its own internal interests without the expressed intent of toppling the other nations government. It sets a series of events to be followed before that step is reached: seek assistance from the country that the terrorists are striking from first, if that doesn’t work take matters into your own hands. But whether that creates more stability or less remains to be seen.

Justification or not, if a foreign power sends troops into your country without permission there’s going to be a war although modern technology and covert troops allows that to be mitigated by keeping it secret from the invaded country. Putin may have already invoked the precedent without international notification, putting the wagon before the horse so to speak.(5) It is however a counterpoint to Bush’s regime change approach and we’ll see how it plays out internationally.

(1): Georgia is a former part of the Soviet Union and was the third largest nuclear country behind the US and Russia when the USSR broke up. Since then Georgia and Russia have maintained cordial yet cool relations for the most part but Chechen terrorists have been using the Pksani valley in Georgia to launch terrorists strikes in Russia. These terrorists strikes, including a string of apartment bombings that killed over a 1,000 in the summer of 1999 led to Russia invading Chechnya which they still occupy (the second invasion in ten years). Chechnya resistance groups have mujaheddin elements within them and are linked to similar groups in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Central Eurasia. Though not probably a formal part of Al-Queda, the Chechnya rebels are fighting a sectarian conflict of independence, they are probably receiving support and training from Al-Queda.

(2): The Treaty of Westphalia is the cornerstone of modern international diplomacy. Signed at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in…(scratches head), I want to say 1648, it formalized the doctrine of national sovereignty into international law. Sovereign states could conduct internal affairs in any manner they choose and warfare should only be utilized between states when external threates are made against another sovereign states interests. This is why the US doesn’t invade China despite it’s anti-humanitarian policies, why the US supported Iraq against Iran. Under the Westphalian system what goes on inside a country is that country’s business. Although today with terrorist sanctuaries often inside sovereign nations and concerns about internal genocide prompting external military intervention (Kosovo for example) it may seem like an antiquitated system it had good intentions.

The Thirty Years War was prompted by the Reformation combining territorial conflicts with attacks based on what the religious practices of other countries were. If you didn’t like how the country next door was treating your fellow Protestants (or Catholics) you invaded. As the name says though this led to thirty uninterrupted and horrific years of absolute warfare over the face of the European continent. This is because, ultimately, no one’s ever going to fully agree with someone else. There has to be a limit as to what justifies a military action or eventually everything will justify a military action. Imagine if the US were to invade every country that we, as US citizens, didn’t like how they treated their folks internally. Now multiply that by about a dozen countries all with different definitions of how internal affairs should be conducted.

(3): I don’t have any of my books here at work so I’m picking dates and facts out of what my memory is. Any inaccuracies I apologize in advance for and would appreciate correction.

(4) www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/09/12/georgia.putin/index.html

(5) http://europe.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/08/26/georgia.russia/index.html


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