Why Russia and the U.S. Disagree on Syria

There is a yawning gap between Russia's view of sovereignty and the West's.

Friends in the right places.

Photographer: Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty Images

Now that Russia has made it clear that it won't stay on the sidelines in the Syrian conflict, U.S. strategists are forced to think up a response. That's a familiar situation: For years, the U.S. has responded to each isolated Russian action instead of admitting that the two countries are on different sides of an important conceptual dispute about the nature of sovereignty.

To Russia, sovereignty is a traditional notion, rooted in the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years war in 1648. According to that settlement, states have full authority over their territories; no outside players may interfere. European countries and the Obama administration in the U.S. adhere to a different, more recent concept, ostensibly based on humanitarian values: If a regime is hurting its citizens, it's permissible to step in. Charles Ziegler of the University of Louisville wrote in a 2012 paper about the Russian concept of sovereignty:

Europe is moving, or has moved, beyond the traditional concept of the modern state toward a postmodern notion of limited sovereignty that must yield to humanitarian impulses. Russia, as China, largely adheres to the modernist principles of statecraft derived from Westphalia, a perspective that views sovereignty as virtually absolute. European cosmopolitanism in response holds this modernist interpretation of sovereignty to be backward, or barbaric. The United States is somewhere between the two extremes, deeply divided internally over the modern and postmodern views of sovereignty, with realists and isolationists adhering to the former, liberals and neo-conservatives the latter.

Instinctively, the European -- and, lately, the U.S. -- approach is more appealing. It's only natural for dictatorial regimes, such as President Vladimir Putin's in Russia, to defend absolute sovereignty: doing so is helpful for their self-preservation, though not necessarily in the interests of the people they rule. Besides, the "post-modern" view of sovereignty is based on a much more recent international consensus than the treaty of Westphalia.

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the so-called "Responsibility to Protect," which allows the international community to use any appropriate means to protect a country's population from a regime that conducts ethnic cleansing or commits war crimes. Reality is more complicated. "Responsibility to Protect" has been the subject of intense debate ever since it was adopted. Many -- including China and Russia -- view it as a preventive doctrine. "In our opinion, the role of the international community should, in the first instance, focus on providing comprehensive assistance to States in strengthening their own capacity and on preventive diplomacy," Mikhail Margelov, who then represented Russia in the UN, said during a 2009 debate. "Any intervention by the international community should be of an exceptional nature." 

"Responsibility to Protect" was first officially used to justify armed intervention in 2011, when force was used against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi Gaddafi in Libya. Dmitri Medvedev, who was then president of Russia, approved it over the objections of Putin, then ruling the country from the prime minister's office. Putin called Western interference in Libya a "crusade" against a sovereign country. That earned him a reprimand from Medvedev -- the weak president's only real act of defiance in four years  of serving as Putin's front.

Putin still sees the Libyan intervention as a mistake and repeatedly mentions Libya when justifying his support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. "If Russia didn't support Syria, the situation in that country would have been worse than in Libya and the outflow of refugees would have been even greater," he said yesterday. 

The situation in Syria is actually much worse than it ever was in Libya: The millions of displaced people and the rise of the Islamic State are testimony to that. Putin maintains that the casualties are the result of Western interference, and while it's easy to see his arguments as self-serving -- the weapons he has supplied to Assad have killed thousands of Syrians -- they fit in with his view that no outside players should attempt regime change in a sovereign country. 

They may even fit the latest iteration of the "Responsibility to Protect" concept. One of the "common principles of assistance" outlined in the 2014 report on the subject by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is "Do no harm":

"Experience has shown that poorly designed international assistance can inadvertently create or exacerbate social cleavages, thereby contributing to the development of atrocity crimes. International support or technical advice that contributes to discrimination and disparities or causes groups to compete over sources of revenue is particularly damaging."

One could argue that Putin is inconsistent about applying his concept. What about Russia's military adventures in Georgia and Ukraine? Putin's official explanation is that Russian interference in both cases was a response to earlier interventions by the West, which he accuses of fostering illegitimate regime change in the two post-Soviet countries. What he can't say publicly, though it illustrates his consistency, is that Russia has never regarded the sovereignty of Ukraine or Georgia to be a decided issue.

There's no question that Putin defends his pragmatic interests both in Russia's post-Soviet neighborhood and in the Middle East, where the last few years haven't been kind to Russia's traditional allies such as Qaddafi and now Assad. He does, however, also defend a clear-cut foreign policy concept. The U.S. and its allies, with their own pragmatic interests, stand for a different one, which is vaguer because it is still evolving. The conflict between the two views has cropped up repeatedly, Syria and Ukraine being the two current hot spots. 

There can only be three approaches to resolving this conflict of ideas. One is for the West to confront Russia militarily and economically, making Russia's view irrelevant. In Syria, for example, that would mean making an increased Russian presence too costly to pursue. It's unclear there is the political will to carry through on that stance, which might involve clashing with Russian forces in the field. And with this approach, the same kind of pressure might someday have to be applied to China, which shares Russia's views. 

A second possibility would be to agree on new rules of international engagement for the great powers. This would mean working out -- probably under UN auspices -- a much more restrictive and concrete means of arbitrating disputes that would make decisions on international intervention less subject to the interests and vetoes of any one permanent Security Council member. That's certainly idealistic, but it's the kind of sovereignty pooling that the European Union has developed, so not unprecedented.

The most likely option, though, is that each new incident gets treated as a separate situation with its own realpolitik implications. That is to some extent what's being done in Ukraine, where Putin is being allowed to keep Crimea, and Western negotiators are forcing Ukraine to accept a special status for the territories now under the control of Russian proxies. In Syria, it might mean a situational alliance with Russia against Islamic State and a behind-the-scenes deal to partition Syria or phase out Assad as its legitimate ruler.

That's hardly glorious, but it's preferable to failure and endless diplomatic and military escalation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.