by Hala Mounib


According to the second Article of The United Nations Charter of 1945, all UN members are to abstain from posing a threat or using force that would infringe on the political and territorial integrity of member states, as the intergovernmental organization was founded on the principle of equal sovereignty of all of its members. The Charter is internationally recognized as a symbol of common human decency and is adhered to by the 193 countries that signed and ratified it. From the Charter stems the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which applies to armed conflict, and it’s considered, akin to the Charter, legally-binding.

Both of these documents seek to highlight the sovereignty of states, which is characterized by the responsibility to recognize and protect the equal worth and dignity of citizens while safeguarding their individual identities, civil rights, and freedoms. This paper attempts to explore the grey area concerning the legitimacy and morality of military intervention and if it infringes on state sovereignty and the self-determination of people.


Sovereignty, like other political terms, has always had malleable definitions throughout history; mainly because of elements like the separation of the church and the state and the secularization of the contemporary period, however, it’s important to note that all of the definitions attributed to sovereignty have always boiled down to autonomy; the supremacy of a state, and the control over its territory and population.

Raia Prokhovnik (2013) asserts that the concept of sovereignty did not arrive de novo with political philosopher Jean Bodin, and Bruno Simma emphasises the pedigree of suprema potestas (or supreme power) in all states (Gerry Simpson, 2004). Therefore, one can conclude that sovereignty, being the concept of state autonomy, has existed well before it was defined by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which is regarded as the genesis of modern sovereign state structures by many IR scholars. It’s necessary to address this because when an error is made clear in mathematics or natural sciences, the entire academic structure of the discipline is amended to accommodate the newly discovered fact. This shouldn’t be very different in IR’s case, and the incorrect orthodox should be rectified.


Prior to the French Revolution, the recourse to war was an attribute of sovereignty; it was deemed both lawful and legitimate when a ruler would call his nation to arms, regardless of any vengeful savagery exerted. This radically changed when limitations on war were set by the Declaration of St. Petersburg (1868). The Geneva Conventions (1906, 1929, and 1949) followed suit and so did the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919. These agreements set boundaries to govern the means of warfare, protect hors de combat militants, and prohibit arbitrary attacks against civilians. Yet perhaps the most important treaties remain the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Briad-Kellogg pact, which were the first to impose restrictions on the very act of waging war and considered any breaching party to be waging war against all members. This restriction was later codified in the UN Charter.


It’s necessary to distinguish legality from legitimacy before progressing onto the next segment, because they are often considered as interchangeable terms. Legality is determined by international law and is thus objective, unbiased, and universal. Legitimacy, on the other hand, refers to morality and is much more complex than legality since it concerns different disciplines and principles. It then becomes up to the interpreter’s subjectivity, predisposition, and what school of thought they identify with to analyse and determine the legitimacy or morality of a given issue. This paper assesses the legitimacy of military intervention and uses the doctrine of Just War as a litmus test to determine the validity of states’ involvement in other states.


The desire to set restrictions on the reasons to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the means and methods of warfare (jus in bello) predates Christianity. Cicero spoke of two ways to settle a dispute in De Officiis (44 B.C.);

  1. Through discussion and negotiation, which he attributed to man.
  2. Through physical force, which he attributed to brutes.

The Roman philosopher explained that the recourse to force should be the last resort if discussion was not possible, this way a state can have just and righteous grounds for war. He also touched on jus in bello, emphasizing the importance of showing mercy to those conquered, maintaining the humanity in Rome’s laws of war, and upholding any promises made (Walter Miller, 1913).

With the arrival of Christianity, these ethics were carried onto St. Ambrose, who was the first Christian to roughly sketch the model of just war (Roland H. Bainton, 1960 and Louis J. Swift, 19170). The model was later amplified by St. Augustine and became the standard departure point for later writers such as Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, and Gratian (David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, 2012).

Drawing on St. Augustine’s doctrine of just war, there are certain criteria that a war must fulfil to be considered justified, permissible, and even morally desirable. The doctrine rejects the principle of raison d’etat (Christopher Finlay, 2018), the fundamental basis of Machiavelli’s (1532) ideology of realism, which does away with moral codes and assumes the right to conduct war when it is to the advantage of a state. The doctrine additionally rejects the pacifist belief that violence and war are never justified and upholds a state’s moral obligation to restore peace and international order, even it meant taking up arms, above all.


While it’s difficult to identify the genesis of certain just war principles due to the continuous development of the doctrine, which is caused by the evolution of both traditional and non-traditional war and military intervention strategies, scholars generally agree on a list of standards to define and characterize just and fair interventions and wars. The most crucial include the cause of the war being sufficiently just, the right competent authority to wage such a war, waging the war as a last resort, the use of proportionate and sensible force, a decent exit strategy and the reasonable likelihood of winning (Thomas Pink, 2015).

These standards will be used to determine whether the two provided examples of military intervention are just or not. They revolve around Russia’s interventionist policies in Syria and Venezuela.

Russia’s Intervention in Syria

According to Reuters, Russia’s military intervention in Syria came after a formal written request by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Seeking aid against the ever-increasing presence of ISIS and the growing influence of jihadist and rebel clusters, Syria had decided in 2015 that it was time to ask for further foreign military aid to limit the damages of the Syrian civil war after the failure of U.S. airstrikes to curb Islamic State. Below is the breakdown of the intervention in relation to the just war doctrine (Nissenbaum, 2015).

1. Just Cause and Competent Authority: It’s clear that the reason for the military intervention is a fair one; the support was requested from Syria officially and this legitimizes the cause and the authority of Russia’s intervention. Moreover, the intervention seeks to tackle the issue of insurgency in Syria, justifying the cause further, since it’s the international community’s moral obligation to prevent tyranny from spreading.

However, one must look at the national interests of Russia as well; Reuters reported that the upper house of the Russian Parliament unanimously granted President Putin the right to deploy the air force to Syria (Kinda Makieh, Tom Perry, John Stonestreet, 2015). This raises the question if Russia has an underlying agenda such as establishing permanent intelligence and military presence in the Middle Eastern region (Polina Ivanova, 2017).

General Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, explains that the Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) bubble in Syria established by Russia isn’t about ISIS but rather about the United States and should be seen as an attempt to hinder U.S. operations in the region (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, 2015).

2. Last Resort: The just war doctrine calls upon negotiation and peaceful conduct before utilizing force, this doesn’t apply here. ISIS and Syrian rebel groups do not seek compromise or common grounds and therefore the only way to limit their violence is by using military intervention.

3. The use of sensible force: According to Sergey Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s General Staff, four observation points have been established in Eastern Ghouta, and Russian Aerospace Forces have carried out 2,010 raids, delivering 5,850 air strikes on militant camps and training zones, weapons and ammunition depots, and transhipment bases (TASS, 2017), meaning that they only targeted rebel forces and terrorists.

However, a tweet sent out from the official account of Syria Civil Defence (or The White Helmets) claimed that a Russian airstrike killed 33 civilians and one White Helmets volunteer in a targeted raid on Homs on the 30th of September 2015. Sputnik News, Russian government-owned news agency, responded on the same day by refuting these claims, and alleging that the Syrian Civil Defense is funded by George Soros and is fabricating lies about Russia’s involvement in Syria. A 2018 BBC article states that the UN no longer keeps track of civilian casualty numbers in Syria due to the inaccessibility factor.

While the facts are unclear because of the incessant use of propaganda and framing, it could be said that Russia is utilizing reasonable force in Syria to try to tackle the terrorism and insurgency crisis, especially given the illicit covert nature of transnational organized crime.

4. Exit Strategy: While miniscule, the current presence of terrorist groups in Syria calls for the prevalence of Russia on Syrian grounds. However, drawing upon the NATO’s top commander’s comment on the latent motives of Russia, it’s probably unlikely that they will leave after the complete recovery of Syrian land.

5. Probability of Winning: Maps pulled from IHS Markit Conflict Monitor in 2018 and 2019 preview the extent of the territory that ISIS has lost since 2015.

The radical difference in the territory control goes to show the success that has been achieved by Russian-backed Syrian forces.

Additionally, a 2017 report by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence depicts the losses of the IS caliphate.


IHS Markit (2017) explains that the drop of revenue is mainly due to the loss of 60% of previously occupied territory and subsequently the loss of access to oil-producing areas, which contributed directly to the revenue generated from black-market oil sale. The full eradication of ISIS might be improbable due to the intricate and complex nature of transnational organized crime and the unpredictability it possesses, but the efforts deployed by Russia and Syria mustn’t be downplayed as they have effectively eliminated the major terrorist cells in Syria.

Through the combination of all of these elements, we can determine that Russia’s military intervention in Syria is just and legitimate because it checks out for most of the criteria of the just war doctrine.

Russia’s Intervention in Venezuela

Russia’s firm bilateral relations with Venezuela date back to the Chávez era. Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrei Kortunov explains to the BBC that the ties between Venezuela and Russia are “symbolically important” because both countries are “very critical of the US and Western policy”. This is clearly depicted in Russia’s support for Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, over Juan Guaidó, Leader of the National Assembly and current interim President, in the recent Venezuelan presidential crisis, which erupted after Guaidó invoked Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution.

1. Just Cause and Competent Authority: Mikael Wigell, a senior Latin America research fellow, spoke in an interview with RFE/RL about the strategic partnership between Russia and Venezuela. He explains that Russia’s foreign policy towards Venezuela revolves around economy and is mainly a way to maintain a balance of power against the United States (Robert Coalson, 2019). Hence it can be assumed that Russia would be intervening militarily for personal interests rather than simply for the sake of democracy. This is further confirmed by Russia’s stained record in the areas of democracy and liberty.

It can be deduced then that Russia’s intervention in this case isn’t for a just cause, instead it is to back the socialist regime that had been established by Maduro. The determination of whether Vladimir Putin has a competent authority over the situation is vague due to the torn support of the international community over the two opposing presidential candidates, and the vehement support of Venezuelan citizens for the interim President over Maduro’s kleptocracy.

2. Last Resort: The military intervention is presently being considered as a last resort, with current efforts to better the situation being underway such as negotiations and the foreign aid supplied by Russia. It’s worth noting however that not all foreign aid is being accepted by Venezuela. USAID (2019) states that Maduro-backed security forces have hindered efforts exerted by Guaidó’s governmental representatives to transport humanitarian aid provided by the U.S. into Venezuela.

3. Sensible force: In late January, The Moscow Times (2019) reported that private military contractors have landed in Venezuela to back up Maduro’s security. In a telephone conversation with Maduro, President Putin expressed his disapproval of “destructive external interference”, implying the role that the U.S. is playing in the Latin American country, and dubbed it a “gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law”.

With the defect of Venezuela’s top military envoy to the United States from Maduro’s government, Russia is expected to deploy troops in the region. This action would prove catastrophic to Venezuela, especially after the speculation that the United Stated would be sending 5,000 troops to Colombia, Venezuela’s south neighbour, after U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton accidentally exposed his notepad during the announcement of sanctions on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company (Jon Sharman, 2019). Sabina Castelfranco (2019) of the Voice of America reports that Russia warned the United States against any “temptation to resort to military power”. Force hasn’t been effectively deployed yet by Russia, but the warnings hint at the possible excessive use of force to keep President Nicolás Maduro’s administration in power.

4. Exit Strategy: Akin to Syria, Venezuela might become grounds for a prolonged proxy war. The establishment of permanent intelligence and military bases isn’t far-fetched considering Russia has used that course of action before, rendering a decent exit strategy improbable.

5. Probability of Winning: It’s impossible to determine the odds of success of Russia’s intervention, given the extremely divided support in the international arena. It’s perhaps reasonable to assume that, with the immense backing and recognition of Guaidó’s legitimacy, Russia’s probability of success in any military intervention is minimal.


The combination of these aspects goes to show the lack of legitimacy and justice in any military intervention that Russia would undertake in Venezuela, since the efforts would be directed against democracy and the vox populi of Venezuelan people and the current interim President. Venezuelan citizens have been vocal about the Russian advances being unwanted, and the U.S. Department of State assured that it would not back down as Guaidó has asked them to stay (Ana Vanessa Herrero and Neil MacFarquhar, 2019).



The examples provided above depict the drastically different interventionist foreign policies of Russia towards two countries. In the first case we can conclude that Russia’s intervention is legitimate and for a just cause, in the second case, not so much. Nonetheless, the benefit of the doubt should be considered at all times, because regardless of how a situation appears to be, objectivity is rarely exercised by involved parties. Vattel explains in his magnum opus The Law of Nations that while war isn’t just on both sides, the perception can be held on both contending parties that they are just and fair in their motives, and since nations are sovereign and independent, the two parties are to be accounted as having equally legitimate and lawful intentions (Joseph Chitty, 1844).


Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute

Featured Image Credit: By Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 195515., Public Domain,

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