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The normative war around Crimea

Ahead of the Crimea referendum, a rhetorical battle over legality had been heating up between Russia and the West. Rising powers may be siding with the G-7 but that is no reason for complacency, argues Thorsten Benner.

The Group of 7 leaders did not mince words in a joint statement on Wednesday. They called the referendum in Crimea a "direct violation of the Constitution of Ukraine" and labeled Moscow's support for Crimea's bid to join the Russia Federation a "violation of international law" not covered by the right to self-determination.

In the

words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel,

at stake is nothing less than "the territorial integrity of a European neighbor and the respect of the principles of the United Nations." Russia's actions remind her of the worst practices of the 19th and 20th century: "The right of the stronger wins over the rule of law" in the name of "one-sided geopolitical interests."

To counter Western arguments, Russia throws it own legal punches. Russian president Vladimir Putin asserts, the current "government in Kyiv is illegal" because it usurped power by force through an "unconstitutional putsch." Putin then accused the new government of taking "absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions." That, said Putin, forced Moscow's hand. "Russia cannot ignore calls for help, and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law."

In addition, Russia has spiced up its case with references to protecting human rights of Russian citizens abroad and dealing with a humanitarian crisis. As Columbia University's Alexander Cooley has

pointed out

, Russia is "adopting the language of Western values in a prolonged bout of international normative jujitsu."

However, these moves won't put Russia on a winning path in the rhetorical contest with the West. Quite the contrary: It is striking how few followers Russia has around the globe on its Ukraine policy. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a pretty lone voice as Russia's strongest backer.

Isolated Moscow

Thorsten Benner Global Public Policy Institute

Thorsten Benner

None of the rising powers has come out in support of the Russian position. Brazil has said nothing on the issue in line with the government's increasing inward-looking stance. India, a country with strong military ties to Russia, acknowledged "legitimate Russian and other interests involved" but went no further than that. And China has stated time and again that it respects "the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

In a carefully crafted speech at the UN Security Council on Thursday, Beijing left open the possibility that it may abstain on a resolution on Ukraine tabled by Western members leaving Russia isolated. This result is similar to Russia's failure to win diplomatic backing for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Georgia War in 2008.

At the same time, Western powers should not fool themselves into believing that rising powers refuse to follow the Russian position because they are convinced of the West's arguments and underlying motives. Quite the opposite is true.

Argumentative change

China, India and Brazil find it quite ironic to see the West arguing all of a sudden as a staunch defender of the principle of inviolable sovereignty and territorial integrity. As international law scholar Nico Krisch

points out

the practice of "liberal interventionism" over the past two decades has undermined the credibility of the West's commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Countries around the world find it peculiar that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are ruling out any referendum on Crimea as violating the Ukrainian constitution.

After all, they recall the Libya case where the US, France and the UK were granted an intervention mandate by the UN Security Council in the name of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) and were seen as abusing it by turning it into a mission for regime change. Many also still vividly remember the case of Kosovo in which NATO intervened without a Security Council mandate and subsequently recognized it as an independent state.

It's not sufficient for the West to challenge the grounds for the comparison to Kosovo. Merkel did as much by stating the factual base for the West's actions in Kosovo as "in no way" comparable to the situation in Ukraine. UK ambassador to the UN Lyall Grant stated that "the only part of Ukraine where minorities are under threat is in Russian occupied Crimea."

Building trust

These arguments are not enough to restore trust and credibility of the West on sovereignty, intervention and the use of force in the eyes of rising powers. So it's not Merkel's commitment to "the rule of law against the rule of the strongest" that others see as motivating the West's position on Ukraine. Rather, they assume that Western powers are as likely to bend to international law to suit their own interests as is Russia.

This makes it all the more important for the West to try to build trust with rising powers such as Brazil and India on issues of sovereignty and intervention. It is critical to try to build common ground in particular on matters related to the R2P. One just needs to look at Syria to see the urgency of this undertaking.

One way to tackle the R2P issue is to go back to the Brazilian concept of the "Responsibility While Protecting" which proposed stronger checks on those mandated to use force on behalf of the Security Council. Germany should play a leading role in this effort.

A constructive dialogue between the West and rising powers could help to further isolate Russia as long as it advances outlandish claims as currently on Ukraine. For Russia, in the words of Alexander Cooley, the result would be "the abdication of the very status it craves as a responsible and rule-setting power in the international order that it hopes to remake." Then the rhetorical jiujitsu of a would-be great power would turn out to be nothing less than normative harakiri.

Thorsten Benner

@thorstenbenner

is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin where he co-leads the project on "Global Norm Evolution and the Responsibility to Protect."

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