Cycle of Crises? Bosnia, 1994, to Syria, 2013

On 5 February 1994, a mortar shell was fired into the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, killing 68 people and wounding a further 200. Five days later, NATo issued an ultimatum to all forces fighting within 20 km of Sarajevo to hand over their heavy weapons and to refrain from attacks within the area; if they failed to do so within 10 days, heavy weapons of any of the parties found within the exclusion zone, along with their military support facilities, would be subject to NATO air strikes. This led to the first major crisis in Russian-Western relations after the Cold War (Headley 2003). Although Russian policymakers approved of the aims of the declaration, they criticised the threat of force, the fact that it would be carried out by NATO, and the fact that Russia had been sidelined in taking the decision. Instead, the Russian envoy Vitalii Churkin gained the agreement of Slobodan Milosevic (President of Serbia) and Radovan Karadzic (leader of the Bosnian Serbs) to withdraw Serb heavy weapons, while 400 Russian peacekeepers were transferred from Croatia to Sarajevo. This defused the crisis without recourse to air strikes. Both NATO and Russia claimed the credit.

Russian policymakers drew lessons from the crisis, which contributed to the consolidation of broader principles in relation to the wars not only in former Yugoslavia but also in Russian foreign policy more generally (Headley 2003). They argued that NATO had no right to threaten force without a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution; that although the language of the ultimatum was neutral, it was clearly aimed against the Bosnian Serbs even though their responsibility for the mortar shell had not been established; that it was the fact that Russia had asked the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons, not the threat of force, that had made the difference; and that the crisis showed the importance of Russia to the resolution of such situations. These conclusions displayed key elements of the Russian position on the Yugoslav conflicts which had been established over the preceding year: that there should be a peaceful resolution to the conflicts through negotiations without preconditions; that there should be no threat or use of force by outside powers; that the UNSC should play the lead role in conflict resolution, not NATO; that the conflict in Bosnia was a civil war in which it was “impossible... to determine who is right and who is wrong”, in the words of Sergei Lavrov, then Russian ambassador to the UN (Headley 2008, p. 123); that since the conflicts were taking place in a region of Russian interests, but also had implications for European and global security, Russia should be involved as an equal partner in resolving them; that Russian interests might differ from those of Western powers, who were also pursuing their own interests; but that it was important to avoid a great power conflict, including outside powers supporting proxies in the conflict.

On 21 August 2013, a chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, focused international attention on the Syrian conflict and led to calls in a number of Western states for intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The following month, after a UN investigation confirmed the use of sarin, Russian diplomats played a lead role in brokering a deal by which the Syrian government would destroy its chemical weapons stocks and sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This deal averted intervention by Western powers, although debates in the US Congress and the UK House of Commons showed that there was significant reluctance to get involved, even though the atrocity had crossed President Obama’s “red line”. Russia’s position was that it was essential to verify which side had used chemical weapons before taking any action; that the crisis should only be resolved by peaceful means (that there should be no threat or actual use of force against the regime); that the crisis showed the importance of Russian diplomacy; and that although Russia did not rule out the future use of force if the government side did not comply with the agreement, any such action must be approved by the UNSC (e.g. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA] 2013a).

These responses to the chemical weapons crisis also reflected wider Russian policy towards the Syrian conflict at that time. First, there should be a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and no preconditions to negotiations (such as the immediate resignation of Assad); second outside powers should neither threaten nor use force to bring about a resolution to the conflict; third the war was a civil war with no side in the right or wrong (except the extreme Islamists) - as President Putin (2013) argued in an article in the New York Times, “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country”; fourth decisions must involve Russia, through the UNSC or an institution or conference in which Russia was an equal participant; fifth the war was taking place in an area of Russian interests,1 but it was also of global concern with implications for world order; and finally Russia’s interests might diverge from those of Western powers, yet it was important to cooperate in finding a common position and preventing it from becoming a proxy war or even a direct war between outside states.

There are many significant differences between the earlier situation in Bosnia and the current conflict in Syria, and also in Russia’s policy towards them. In practice, for example, Russia was less supportive of the Bosnian government and more favourable towards the “rebels” (Serbs) than in Syria because of sympathy for the Serb side, domestic pressure and a tendency to view Bosnia as an artificial construct, although formally Russia continued to support Bosnia’s territorial integrity. Russia was also bound by existing UNSC resolutions that it had voted for in its initial post-Soviet “liberal Westernizing” foreign policy phase - sanctions against Serbia, the “safe areas”, the no-fly zone and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Russia also favoured upholding the arms embargo, whereas in Syria, it was arming the government side.

Nevertheless, the similarity of policies across a 20-year gap is striking, indicating the long-term continuities in Russian foreign policy. A statement by a representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 30 August 2013 could have been taken from any official statement in relation to the Yugoslav conflicts after 1992:

Any unilateral forceful action bypassing the UN Security Council, however “restricted” it is, will become a direct violation of international law, will disrupt the prospects of a political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict in Syria, and will lead to a new turn of confrontation and new victims. We cannot allow such [a] development of events. (Russian MFA 2013b)

We can see here the insistence on international law, in terms of due process (through the UNSC) and observation of principles of non-intervention and sovereignty, and on a Russian role in resolution of international crises. What this amounted to in terms of Syria, as with former Yugoslavia previously, was the use of the UNSC to block external intervention in a civil war and to avert any action outside a UNSC framework (Charap 2013; Hahn 2012). It reflected scepticism about the notion of “humanitarian intervention” or a “responsibility to protect”, which Russian policymakers saw as a mask for self-interest on the part of Western states.

Russia propounded these principles in other key crises in the intervening period, with policymakers demanding that Russia be involved in their resolution, resisting Western interventionism and standing up for what they perceived to be Russian interests. First, the Russian response to Operation “Deliberate Force”, NATO’s air campaign against the Bosnian Serb forces in August-September 1995, was a logical extension of its position in relation to the Sarajevo crisis: Russia objected to the use of force by NATO without a clear-cut Security Council resolution (policymakers argued that existing resolutions creating the “safe areas” did not permit such extensive action) (Headley 2008). The same applied when the Kosovo crisis emerged a few years later. Russia objected to NATO threats of force against Serbia, and then its actual use of force from March to June 1999, Operation “Allied Force”. In addition, it saw NATO’s intervention and the terms of the peace agreement that ended it as paving the way for Western-backed independence for Kosovo, and also a mechanism to bring about “regime change” in Belgrade. Policy thereafter became focused on resisting moves towards Kosovo independence, in line with the principle of territorial integrity as set out in, for example, the Helsinki Final Act, and in line with the rather ambiguous UNSC Resolution 1244 that ended the conflict (Headley 2008).

In each of these cases, a key factor was NATO. It was not just that NATO was pushing Russia aside, but that such actions gave NATO a raison d’etre in the post-Cold War world. Hence, the issue of NATO action in former Yugoslavia became tied up in the wider question of the role of NATO in post-Cold War Europe and the increasingly divisive question of NATO enlargement (NATO in fact admitted its first former Warsaw Pact members in April 1999, during Operation “Allied Force”). Furthermore, in Kosovo, Russia rejected Western claims that existing resolutions permitted military action, and regarded as spurious the argument that the fact that a draft resolution condemning the bombing was defeated in the UNSC gave it legitimacy. Fundamentally, Russian policymakers believed that Western powers were not respecting international law, were dismissing out of hand objections by other states and were motivated by self-interest rather than humanitarian impulses (Headley 2008).

Similar issues arose with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the difference that the West was more divided in this case. Again, Russia objected to intervention in a sovereign state against its government’s wishes and without explicit UNSC approval. Russian policymakers did not accept the argument that existing resolutions allowed for such action, and were unconvinced by the claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; instead, they attributed the Bush-administration’s policy to geopolitical calculations. There were, however, additional features in relation to Iraq that concerned Russia, which I will discuss in more detail below: regime change and the attempted imposition of liberal democracy; and the belief that such action might create a failed state and encourage Islamic fundamentalism.

In each of the previous crises, the downturn in Russia’s relations with the West was gradually reversed and a relative rapprochement occurred as each side recognised the importance of maintaining cooperative relations built on mutual interests. The Iraq war, however, added to building resentment among Russian policymakers at the disregard for Russia’s objections, and wariness about backing resolutions in the Security Council that might be used as a pretext for intervention, especially as the pattern was later repeated in relation to Libya. Russia abstained on UNSC Resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone in Libya in 2012, but subsequently objected to the way in which certain NATO states exceeded the mandate. As Lavrov, now Foreign Minister, put it in response to an interview question of whether Russia had been misled on the resolution:

We stated clearly that the mandate given by the resolution on which we and the Chinese abstained was grossly violated. The no-fly zone is about not allowing the military aircraft flying, and that’s it. And that’s it. The coalition was not patrolling the no-fly zone and was not ensuring the no-fly zone. It was taking out targets on the ground, directly participating in the internal conflict. (Glasser 2013)

And in a speech later that year at MGIMO university he reiterated the point:

In the case of Libya, where, as you know, there was declared a task to establish a no-fly zone and only afterwards the rule of democracy, there took place a simple transformation of this no-fly zone into elementary, cynical occupation of the aviation of NATO member countries involved in the internal conflict that were on the side of the opponents of the regime of Gaddafi. This was evident in the shocking fact that Gaddafi was savagely killed by NATO forces. (Lavrov 2013).

These developments help to explain Russia’s subsequent reluctance to allow more extensive international action over Syria, and also contributed to deepening its already entrenched distrust of Western interventionism.

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