Russian Perspectives on International Law

medved_putin051010.jpgIn preparing for a talk I will be giving later this week on Russia and international law at Chatham House, I’ve been combing through some of the classic texts of my archives and rediscovering some of the country’s greatest legal minds of past years.  Among others, I have found that you could make a good case for Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (also known as Friedrich Martens) to be considered as one of the world’s most important lawyers of the 19th century, whose pioneering ideas not only had an impact on the Russian perspective on international law, but also contributed to the so-called architecture of international relations and power politics of this important era.

His work lives on in a principle known as “Martens’s formula,” which established an overarching presence of normative formulations for the rules of war between states under which “civilized” states would be guided, which is all the more impressive given that these ideas were coming out of a domestic legal environment based on absolutism.  Martens and other legal scholars of his time were of course building upon a much earlier tradition set by Shafirov and others resulting of the reforms and Europeanization of Peter the Great, which appealed to the West to show that Russia conformed and lived up to the standards of a “normal country” under this foreign normative concept.  The key question, whether it’s Shafirov or Martens, deals with universality of international law – and Martens for example was known as a strong defender of conditional application of international only to civilized states.


This ongoing undercurrent of contested universality in the Russian perspective on international law is compelling, fascinating, and important, and can be observed in much more modern examples, including the “dual state” theory put forward by Ernst Fraenkel (see my legal article on this subject here).  We are currently observing a period of significant change in Russian power and its relations with other states, and, perhaps naturally, we have seen Vladimir Putin seek to redefine some treaties, laws, and legal interpretations which reflect an expression of how Russia sees its status.  The war with Georgia, the dispute over the Arctic, and the ongoing debates over the Energy Charter Treaty and other agreements provide ample examples of these debates.

These conceptual ideals, though vague, have been reiterated by the Russian leadership behind its calls for a “new economic architecture,” a new security architecture, multipolarity, multi-vector foreign policy, and many other gestures which can be drawn all the way back to the question of universality, the theories of Martens, and the multiple dualities within the Russian legal environment.  What exactly all these means in practical terms, what we believe Putin wants, and the contrasting visions of other contemporary legal scholars are some of the subjects I am hoping to address and discuss at the Chatham House event … so I look forward to seeing you there.

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