Putin’s Hollow Legalism

The idea that Vladimir Putin would like to revive the Soviet Union, and that he formulates and executes policy accordingly, is not new or original. But I was still some combination of alarmed and amused to find so obvious an example of Soviet practice embedded in the process by which Russia initiated combat operations in Syria. Back at the end of September (it’s been a busy fall for the team here at TCL), when Russia first announced it would be launching airstrikes after a unanimous parliamentary vote granting Putin, “the right to deploy the country’s military in Syria,” Reuters quoted military expert Ivan Konovalov saying, “For Russian forces to operate [in Syria] legitimately … a law was needed.”

Obviously Konovalov doesn’t speak officially for the Kremlin, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to take that view (or at least the view he conveys – who knows whether or not it’s his own opinion?) as fairly representative of Russian policymaking officialdom’s stance on this sort of thing (most things, really). And it is an unmistakably Soviet view to have (here’s Katie Engelhart for Foreign Policy making the same argument regarding the annexation of Crimea). The meticulously choreographed show trials, the falsified elections, the expansive constitutions which, at least on paper, purported to entitle their citizens to an impressively comprehensive array of rights – these features of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites were all designed to give everything at least some thin veneer of legitimacy by way of a highly superficial  and empty (almost stylized) legality. Something like, “what do you mean that political figure isn’t guilty, we had a trial and everything.” And so it is with the law authorizing airstrikes in Syria – “what do you mean we can’t be bombing there, we passed a law and everything.”*

This is not to say that the airstrikes are in fact illegitimate, but only to say that their legitimacy surely does not depend on the degree to which conducting them does or does not comply with domestic Russian law.** Legitimacy as a concept is designed to allow us to capture something beyond pure legality, and it captures the intuition that there are government actions we wish to condone or condemn that don’t necessarily hue strictly to the preexisting contours of what is legal and what is not. So it’s kind of hilarious, in a dark and mildly upsetting way, to read an argument that boils down to, “Yes, well, a law was passed, so it’s legitimate.”

*To be fair, Russia is hardly the only country to operate with this viewpoint – the Bush Administration’s take on torture was basically the same: “Well, we got some terrible legal argumentation saying it’s not torture, so go right ahead.” But I maintain that the emphasis on legality, thinly defined and understood, and for its own sake, is a Russian/Soviet (the Chinese are pros at this, too) phenomenon much more so than it can be said to be, say, an American or a British one
**Russia claims to be acting at the invitation of Assad, and if you take that at face value then the airstrikes are perfectly legitimate. Of course, there is another debate entirely to be had about whether or not Assad is the legitimate representative of Syria anymore, and I think there’s a decent case to be made that he is not. But, since as of right now the bastard still gets the country’s UN seat, it seems there’s no reason to object to Russian airstrikes on grounds of legitimacy or legality (I object plenty to the fact that they seem to be aimed more at ethnic Turkmen and anti-Assad fighters than ISIS, but that’s a separate post entirely)