Many a theory has been offered about how the situation in Ukraine has escalated to this point. On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wondered if Russian President Vladimir Putin was “in touch with reality.” Her point was bolstered by his rambling Tuesday press conference, during which Putin implied—among other things—that this whole thing was the United States’ fault and that the troops on the ground weren’t Russian soldiers but well-outfitted, trained military imposters. “If I do decide to use armed forces,” he said, “this will be in full compliance with international law.” President Barack Obama offered his take, saying that “President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.” Obama added, “There is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law.”
The thing is, Putin actually loves international law—at least, in theory. The Russian president has expressed strong support for international law many times, but, no surprise, it usually comes when he’s singling out the United States as a violator. In recent months and years, Putin has repeatedly assured the public that what’s happening in Crimea right now—the use of force without UN permission and potential violations of the 1994 Budapest memorandum—would never happen on his watch. So in case a reminder might be useful—as diplomatic efforts are underway to de-escalate the crisis—below is a partial timeline of Putin’s many vows to abide by international law and not resort to the unilateral use of force to resolve a crisis.
1) December 19, 2013: About a month after protesters first occupied the Maidan in Kiev, Putin held his annual end-of-year press conference in Moscow and got several questions on Ukraine. One reporter reminded Putin of Russian interventions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then asked, “Is a situation possible, even hypothetically, in which you will similarly protect the interests of Russian-speaking residents or Russian citizens of Crimea?…Is the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine at all possible?”
Putin’s answer was a definitive no: “None of what is happening in Crimea is like what occurred in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” He noted that Russia interfered in these other spots only because the ethnic conflicts in these regions had placed Russian citizens in the area at risk. “We care about the situation of our compatriots…But this does not mean that we’re going to swing sabers and bring in troops. That is absolute nonsense. Nothing of the sort is or will be happening.”
2) September 20, 2013: With the threat of American military action in Syria looming, Putin addressed the topic during the final meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. “The threat of the use of force and actual use of force are far from being a cure-all for international problems,” he said. “We are talking about using force outside the framework of current international law.” He continued: “Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply.”
3) September 11, 2013: In a New York Times op-ed, Putin, opposing possible US military action in Syria, declared that nations should not bypass the United Nations and its Security Council in taking military action, and he insisted that “decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus.”
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
4) February 27, 2012: After huge opposition protests showed mass discontent with the prospect of another Putin presidency, Putin, then the prime minister, took to the Russian media with seven articles detailing his vision for Russia. He opened the final article with a rundown of Russia’s foreign policy objectives, including “nonconfrontation.” He wrote, “The major principles necessary for any feasible civilization include the inalienable right to security for all states, the inadmissibility of the excessive use of force, and the unconditional observance of the basic principles of international law. To neglect any of these principles can only lead to the destabilization of international relations.”
“It is important that the UN and its Security Council can effectively resist the dictates of some countries and their arbitrary actions on the world stage,” he wrote. “Nobody has the right to usurp the prerogatives and powers of the UN, especially in regard to the use of force against sovereign states.”
5) February 10, 2007: In a speech to the Munich International Security Conference, Putin assailed Washington for jeopardizing global security, specifically through NATO expansion and development of ballistic missiles. “The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN, ” he said. “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law.”