As Russia mulls its next move in Ukraine, consideration of its allies’ reactions might have greater weight than the response of the West.

The events in Ukraine are a national tragedy … The Arab Spring has come to the capital of a European state.

– Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian Federation Council

The strength of Russia’s reaction to events in Ukraine should have surprised no one. Two of the major preoccupations of Russian foreign policy in the last decade have been efforts to bolster governments under assault from their restive populations and, from Moscow’s perspective, the threat of external intervention, and a determination to establish and defend a zone of privileged interests across the former Soviet Union by making progress with its integration projects. In Ukraine in February 2014, those two preoccupations came into full alignment. Margelov’s statement captures Russia’s general disapproval of the disorder created by the Arab Spring, and the sense of an immediate threat to Russia that is implicit in an EU-assisted coup d’état happening on its doorstep.

The first preoccupation has been most regularly on display with regard to Syria. Russia’s support for the Assad government has ranged from arms deliveries to blocking any UN Security Council resolution that could be construed as threatening external intervention. This has not been primarily due to a desire to protect arms-sale contracts – with a government that has a poor track record as a payer – or Russia’s small naval-refuelling facility in Tartus. Rather, Moscow has striven to promote its conservative approach to international law, which puts the principle of non-interference in a sovereign state above any supposed responsibility to protect or right to intervene. The one recent occasion in which Russia wavered on this principle – Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising external powers to protect civilians in Libya – opened the door for Western states to provide air cover to rebel forces, who toppled the regime and summarily executed Muammar Gadhafi. Two years later, Libya remains fragmented and violent. From this and other Arab Spring events, Russia drew two main lessons. Firstly, when a country suffers armed rebellion, the interests of stability are better served by backing the recognised government rather than by aiding its opponents; when rebels are armed or encouraged from abroad, it seldom leads to unity and stability thereafter. Secondly, it is essential to ensure that the UN Security Council does not adopt any resolution that gives Western states a humanitarian pretext for an intervention in support of their geopolitical interests. Indeed, this extends beyond the threat of armed intervention to any form of coercion, such as sanctions. Russia has thus vetoed any resolution that infringed on the prerogatives of the Assad government, and latterly it has sought to roll back UN sanctions on the Iranian government too.

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Nicholas Redman is Director of Editorial, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security, and Editor of the Adelphi book series at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2014

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