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A Journey for Understanding (Part II)

Soviet Echoes and Academic Complicity in Russia's Claims in Self-Determination


This is Part II of the Book Review on Johannes Socher’s “Russia and the Right to Self-Determination in the Post-Soviet Space” (Oxford University Press, 2021). You can read Part I here.

In this part of our review, we shift the focus from the conceptual framing of Socher’s analysis, addressed in Part I, to a discussion of his thorough empirical work on the Russia’s approach to self-determination which formed the bedrock of his analysis. Part II delves into the intricate relationship between Russian state practices in self-determination and the lingering influence of Soviet policies. We will also explore how Soviet and Russian academic institutions have historically reinforced government policy in this area. Furthermore, the review will address recent developments following the book’s release and their relevance in the context of Socher’s findings.

The Soviet Legacy in the Russian Interpretation of the Right to Self-Determination

After a general introduction, Socher’s book delves into the Russian understanding of the right to self-determination, tracing it to its Soviet roots and the USSR’s contribution to the evolution of self-determination as “an international legal right” (p. 12, Chapter 1). Socher uses sources extensively, and Lenin’s and Stalin’s views (including notable disagreements) over the content of the right are well documented (pp. 20-21).

Indeed, Russia uses the Soviet legacy of a strong commitment to the right to self-determination as a means to pursue its foreign policy objectives. In fact, the Soviet doctrine on self-determination applies different legal standards based on the region: within the USSR and the ‘Eastern Bloc’, only socialist self-determination is recognized, thus the right to internal self-determination is fulfilled without allowing secession. In contrast, for third states, the doctrine supports external self-determination, including the right to secede (cf Socher, p. 56). This issue ties in with recent criticism by Sparks (2023) of the binary classification of self-determination into ‘internal’ and ‘external’ forms. Sparks argues that this binary conflates important distinctions between polity-based, secessionary, colonial, and remedial forms of self-determination, the rationales of such claims, their subjects, and the status in international law, which resulted in the uncertainty of the self-determination framework. Moreover, the lack of clear distinction according to Sparks, led to a fear of ‘spillover’ legitimacy – the concern that legitimizing one form of self-determination could inadvertently legitimize a claim of a different form (Sparks, Chapter 1).

In this muddy grey area, where unlike cases are treated alike (cf Sparks, p. 39), Russia demands the right to external self-determination (i.e., secession) for Russian or pro-Russian minorities in its neighboring states, while simultaneously flatly rejecting it for the minorities within the Russian Federation. Notably – and unlike the Soviet Constitution – the Russian Constitution does not recognize the right to secession, even though it does recognize the (internal) right to self-determination for its subunits (cf Socher, pp. 59-69).

Socher notes the potential within the Soviet international law doctrine, as demonstrated in the works of Kozhevnikov, for territorial changes on the basis of law and justice, which includes the commitment to (and exploitation of) referendums: “According to the Soviet state’s stance on international law, a plebiscite may, for example, be held as a method of reunification that is an accession of former Soviet territories which were taken by force” (Kozhevnikov as quoted in Socher, p. 50). Although explicit arguments deeming the use of force irrelevant to the legality of territorial acquisitions seemed to fade from the Soviet doctrine (Socher, p. 50), the rationale persisted in practice. For years, Russia has leveraged minorities in the countries that were part of the Soviet Union and their purported will to achieve its own policy goals.

However, even if one would accept the above-described contentious view that territorial changes only require the inhabitants’ expressed will, the credibility of these ‘referendums’ has grown increasingly questionable. The 2014 Crimea ‘referendum’ was planned and executed within a few weeks and in gross violation of international legal standards (Socher, pp. 160-164). After the publication of Socher’s book, ‘referendums’ were conducted in four areas of Ukraine, occupied by Russian troops since 2022, amid the ongoing armed conflict. These ‘voting’ processes, organized within days and marked by military personnel accompanying ‘election officials’ door-to-door, produced results whose credibility is reminiscent of the Soviet elections or 1939 Soviet annexation tactics in the occupied West of Ukraine (cf Plokhy (2015), p. 261). Consequently, even if we were to accept that Ukrainian constitutional law is irrelevant for assessing legality of such referendums under international law (see Socher, p. 161-622), the purported ‘expression of will’ from these referendums can tell us nothing about the genuine will of the population in question.

Russian Legislation, Court Cases and State Practice on the Right to Self-Determination

In Chapter 2 Socher analyses the Russian Constitution and court cases concerning self-determination. The author notes the contradictions in the equal rights of the constituent entities (some seem to have more equal rights than others) and summarizes the independence aspirations of Tatarstan and Chechnya. One aspect that could have been explored further though, is a detailed description of the legal origins of the contemporary Republics of the Russian Federation. In particular, all of them once held the status of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (Adygea, while it wasn’t an ASSR, transformed from an autonomous oblast into an even higher SSR status). This inclusion would have provided a valuable point of comparison to other examples used in this book (such as Crimea, Tatarstan, Chechnya – also a former Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, while other case-studies at some point were either autonomous oblasts or SSR).

Chapters 3 and 4 account for the changes in the Russian doctrine on self-determination after the independence of Kosovo and the annexation of Crimea – on the topics of secession and annexation, respectively. Under the doctrine, if a state constitutionally and meaningfully provides a minority with a right to self-determination within the state’s borders, then there is no right to secession – the Russian Federation being the case in point. Consequently, if the state does not provide such a right, there might be room for the legal right to secession. Until the Kosovo declaration of independence in 2008 Russia refused to accept any unilateral secessions, affirming the inviolability of borders and the territorial integrity of their parent states in various UN resolutions and international agreements (Socher, pp. 142-144).

The Kosovo precedent, per the Russian view, opened Pandora’s box, with the events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia unfolding just a few months later (cf Socher, p. 143). The exact source of impact on the Russian policy in the Kosovo case remains debatable. As Sparks suggested, the ICJ’s de facto approach of not answering the question about the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence – which suggested the absence of legal regulation – emboldened Russia’s aggression in subsequent years (Sparks (2023), p. 192).

Following the Kosovo case, Russia unilaterally reserves itself the right to decide whether a state such as Georgia is providing the right to (internal) self-determination well enough. Having ‘solved’ its internal question with a federal structure that provides the right to self-determination, Russia now assumes the role of a judge on these matters – from Moldova to Georgia and Ukraine. In Russia’s view, while ‘multinational people’ in Russia (more than 190 ethnic groups) have the right to self-determination, they have used it to form the Russian Federation. Therefore, as the Russian thinking goes, if the state in question provides its peoples with the right to (internal) self-determination, then the realization of this right is considered acceptable. If it does not – according to Russia – such people have a right to secede with Russia’s help, as evidenced by interventions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008) and Crimea (2014) (cf Socher, p. 68-69).

Overall, the book offers an impressively detailed account of Soviet and Russian state practice in the field of self-determination. Although one wishes for the author to call out more frequently and explicitly the hypocrisies in that state practice, the book remains a valuable documentation of a long-standing tradition of blurring concepts and applying double standards. In this tradition, Soviet and Russian international law scholarship also operated, and Socher’s analysis of them is a timely read amidst debates about the boycott of Russian academic institutions (see, for instance, an insightful forum ‘Debating academic boycotts and cooperation in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine).

Symbiosis of Soviet and Russian Scholarship with Government Policy

Socher closely examines the complicit and often perverse role played by Soviet (Chapter 1) and Russian (Chapter 5) international law scholarship in supporting and justifying the countries’ foreign policy objectives. Although Socher sees this scholarship also as a ‘reflection of a more general regional fragmentation of international law’ (p. 56, see also p. 206), the book undoubtedly excels in providing a wealth of examples from the Soviet period to present days, evidencing a striking depth of collaboration, and overwhelming willingness to adapt scholarship to reflect goals and tasks, pursued by the government.

Firstly, the author looks at works of pivotal figures in the Soviet and Russian doctrine: Fyodor Kozhevnikov, as commented by Lauri Mälksoo, argues for Russia as the most progressive civilizational force (p. 44); to justify interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Grígory Tunkin and Evgeny Usenko replaced the principle of peaceful coexistence with the right and duty of “brotherly assistance” when a State belonging to the claimed Soviet sphere of influence attempted non-socialist self-determination (pp. 52-53); Bakhtiar Tuzmukhamedov shortly after the invasion of Georgia in 2008, scrabbled around to offer the Soviet justification for wars of national liberation (p. 190); Anatoly Kapustin was the first one to justify the Crimean annexation in his circular letter to the members of the International Law Association, where he rigorously repeated the line of reasoning projected by the Russian government (pp. 192-194). Kapustin’s lecture on the Russian approach to international law meanwhile is still available in the UN Audiovisual Library.

Secondly, the most prestigious educational institutions in the international law field (the Diplomatic Academy, the MGIMO) are run by the Russian MFA (p. 180), and a textbook on international law praised for its superiority on the market, starts with a foreword by the Russian foreign minister and offers revitalization of Soviet doctrine of wars of national liberation (pp. 181, 194). Finally, publications in the most reputable Russian law journals (such as Moscow Journal of International Law, State and Law, Eurasian Law Journal) – transformed into fora for competition in coming up with the most convincing excuse for Russian foreign policies (pp. 199-202). Open disagreement with Russian policies, Socher found among some scholars in 1995 in relation to Chechnya (p. 185), while already in 2003, Russian international law scholarship is observed to be (again) “closely intertwined with the state” (Tarja Långström quoted on p. 179), and the Chechnya case more recently is presented through the terrorism narrative (p. 185). After the Crimean annexation, in Russian scholarship “the views expressed in the academic debate – at home and abroad – by and large correlated with the official positions purported by the Russian government” (pp. 202-203) challenged by few scholars from predominantly the younger generation – Maria Issaeva, Gleb Bogush, Elena Lukyanova, Anatoly Pronin, Andrey Zubov (pp. 203-205). In 2018, Issaeva and Bogush argued that academic freedom in Russia was not an issue (p. 205, fn. 148), which in the light of the above material raises multiple questions, including why then the mainstream position has been challenged so little, and how valid the arguments are that Russian academia should be unequivocally excepted from the negative repercussions of ‘Putin’s war in Ukraine’?

Indeed, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, occurring post-publication of Socher’s book, provided a significant opportunity to observe whether the above-described trend would persist, or if tectonic changes would transpire in doctrine. Shortly after the invasion’s onset, the Russian Union of Rectors issued a statement endorsing Russian aggression and asserting that “[u]niversities have always been the backbone of the state”. Similar endorsements emerged from several Russian universities, research centers, and representatives of education, science, art and culture, with the latter appeal amassing almost 16,000 signatories (for an overview see Nazarovets and Teixeira da Silva (2022)).

Conversely, the anti-war letter of Russian scholars and science journalists, published on the day of the invasion, subsequently disappeared from its website and corresponding Google cache, and reappeared on a different, recently created, site claiming more than 8,000 signatories. Even if the claimed number is accurate, it would still represent only around 2% of all Russian scholars (according to Nazarovets and Teixeira da Silva (2022)). An anti-war letter penned by Russian lawyers is also no longer publicly available due to referred data protection concerns for the signatories.

The final notable development preceding this review: over a year after the invasion, on 9 June 2023, a small number of 26 Russian lawyers and human rights defenders finally added their voices to the call for an international tribunal on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. This belated and limited response echoes appeals for such a tribunal that have been made since at least April 2022 (see e.g. the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; for an insightful discussion comparing the reception of a special tribunal for Ukraine with those for Africa and Asia, see Labuda (2023), pp. 3-21).

Yet, given the magnitude of the international law violations resulting from the 2022 Russian invasion and subsequent war crimes, along with the potential influence that public intellectuals and educational institutions have, it seems challenging to view the above declarations as fully addressing the earlier discussed systemic problems in Russian academia.

The Bottom Line

Socher’s book, grounded in a wealth of empirical data, offers a timely read for anyone interested in Russian state practices in self-determination and their Soviet roots. The data, meticulously gathered by Socher, reveals a distinct pattern in Soviet and Russian state practice in self-determination: while aggressively supporting self-determination outside their self-defined sphere of influence, the USSR and Russia have staunchly denied the right for nations within their territories (e.g. Tatarstan, Chechnya), and for countries belonging to their sphere of influence to self-determine differently than the USSR/Russia sees fit (e.g. annexation of Baltic countries, interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan) (cf pp. 35-36, 53, 56, 68-69).

The 2022 Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine that unfolded after the book’s publication, not only heightens its relevance but also serves as a stark backdrop to Socher’s analysis. The readers in 2023 will notice the echoes of policies, analyzed by Socher, in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. For instance, Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was justified because its ‘anti-socialist’ self-determination would lead to NATO troops approaching Soviet borders (cf p. 40). Russian recognition of South Ossetian independence was reasoned as a response to Georgia’s resort to genocide in the area, allegations proved to be untenable (pp. 130-131).

The book invites readers to reflect on the nature of this continuity, and question if responses to it were adequate. Where is the line between the interpretation of rules and their breaches? Does accepting at face value the legal justifications provided by states embolden further action? Was Russia even properly understood? Over-crediting the sincerity and legitimacy of the Russian position – “the Russian government and her advocates actually ‘believe’ in their arguments” (p. 212) – seems to miss the point. If the correct understanding is that Russia’s belief is not in their arguments, but that they can get away with them, should we focus on judging them now?

Polina Kulish

Polina Kulish is a PhD candidate and a research associate at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. Her fields of research encompass the law of international organisations, law of international security, and media law. In her current research project, she is exploring the nature of member states’ compliance in international organisations.

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Tero Lundstedt

In addition to his work as the Content Director of a Finnish think tank Libera Foundation, LL.D Tero Lundstedt continues his academic pursuits on a post doc project relating to territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Tero’s research topics include international law and politics, conflict mediation, territorial issues and Russian foreign policy.

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