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Book Reviews - General (4)

Roy Allison, Russia, the West, and Military Intervention

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, 308 pages
Matthew Light
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Roy Allison, Russia, the West, and Military Intervention. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, 308 pages

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1Why have the hopes for comity between Russia and the West in the post-Cold War period so signally failed to be realized? What rights does Russia claim vis-à-vis Western partners, both in the post-Soviet region and in the world? In particular, what norms have emerged, or failed to emerge, from the dialogue between these two sides regarding international law justifications for military intervention? Roy Allison’s major study helps answer all these questions. Allison offers a highly detailed and systematic account of the positions of Russia, the United States, and other Western states based on careful reading of the output of their diplomats in response to major crises in their post-Cold War relations, notably the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Although written before the current Ukraine conflict, his book sheds light on the origins of that crisis.

2Allison argues that Russian official views on the role of force in international law are both highly conservative in the broader world, and at the same time demand a special role for Russia in the post-Soviet space. He opens his study with the evolution of Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was followed by unprecedented diplomatic cooperation between the USSR and the West, culminating in the Security Council resolution authorizing the United States to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait with force. Yet as Allison demonstrates, this temporary convergence of interests reflected very different underlying views of international order. The USSR, and later Russia, have upheld a conservative reading of international law on armed interventions based on the primacy of state sovereignty, rather than substantive norms of internal governance, notably human rights, such as the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P doctrine. This contrast in approaches became glaringly apparent during the Yugoslav wars, especially the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia over the future status of Kosovo. In that crisis, NATO launched a war against Serbia based on allegations of mass Serbian rights violations, but without an authorizing Security Council resolution and over Russia’s objections. Russia concluded that the West, led by the United States, would use R2P to justify any intervention it wished, substantially undermining the United Nations system, and Russia’s role as a guarantor of that system.

3In the 2000s, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq produced further conflicts among major world powers with respect to armed intervention. At times, both Russia and the United States adopted positions that put them at odds with other states. In Afghanistan, Russia accepted the US argument that war on the Taliban was justified as a matter of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Yet Russia resisted any extension of that principle to campaigns of nation-building meant to establish democracy and uphold human rights. On Iraq, Russia’s position of “pluralist sovereignty” found support among other countries, including traditional US allies France and Germany, which joined it in condemning the ouster of Saddam Hussein and rejecting US claims for “preemption.”

4Yet despite Russia’s conservative legal positions elsewhere, in the post-Soviet region it has staked out a claim to a role as regional guarantor, somewhat paralleling US claims in the conflicts described above, and sometimes explicitly limiting the sovereignty of neighbouring states. Indeed, in its own region, Russia has sometimes mimicked US claims. For example, it explicitly analogized the Afghanistan conflict to its own war against Chechen separatists, while also insisting on an absolutist interpretation of sovereignty in which rights violations by Russia or its Chechen allies could not be scrutinized by any external party. In its conflict with Georgia, Russia has at times relied on concepts of “pre-emption” similar to those of the United States in Iraq, or for that matter claims of “peace-keeping” similar to those of the United States and European powers in ex-Yugoslavia. Allison skeptically analyzes Russia’s justifications for its August 2008 war against Georgia, in which Russia first distributed passports to residents of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (itself a questionable move under international law), and then used spurious claims of Georgian “genocide” to justify full-scale invasion of Georgia. (He also claims that Russia began preparing for its war with Georgia even before the alleged provocations by Georgia.) Russia’s international law claims regarding Georgia have met with criticism even from other post-Soviet states, as well as from Russia’s major strategic partner, China.

5This fascinating study leaves the reader with an overwhelming impression of failure—the failure of all major powers in the post-Cold War world to develop norms of conflict resolution and armed intervention that could have produced a more stable international order. Based on Allison’s evidence, there is some justification for Russia’s displeasure at American overreach on the global stage. At the same time, Russia itself has failed to accept a role for itself as one sovereign state among others in the post-Soviet region.

6Other questions emerge from this book that Allison could investigate in future. First, Allison notes, inter alia, that both Presidents Putin and Yeltsin have actually been less reflexively anti-American than their foreign policy elites, which have embraced conspiratorial views of the US role in post-Soviet politics, notably in the so-called Colour Revolutions. It would therefore be interesting to learn more about the actors in Russia’s internal policy debates that have produced the policies he describes. As a related matter, one could argue that in the current Ukraine crisis, the tension between Russia’s support for sovereignty and the UN system and its claims of pre-eminence in the FSU have finally been resolved in favour of the latter. Readers of this book would benefit from Allison’s analysis of the policy-making process that led Russia to burn its bridges with the West, and especially with major European powers, with whom it has sometimes acted in concert against the United States to uphold state sovereignty.

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Electronic reference

Matthew Light, Roy Allison, Russia, the West, and Military InterventionThe Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 31 January 2016, connection on 28 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Matthew Light

University of Toronto

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