Deteriorating Relationships Between Russia and the West

By Savannah Priebe


Arguably the tension between Russia and the West, mainly the United States, have been building since Russia’s conflict with Georgia in 2008. The Five-Day war began after Russia decided to cease mediation efforts between Abkhlaazia and South Ossetia, two provinces within Georgia but ran by separate governments.[1] Though South Ossetia had declared its independence, it had not been recognized as a separate nation from Georgia at that time.[2] Russia invaded Georgia on August 8, 2008, claiming “self-defense of its citizens living in Georgia” who were mostly located in South Ossetia.[3]  South Ossetia had been established by the former Soviet Union back in 1922.[4] After the Soviet Union dissolution, an agreement was formed between Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia representatives to station “peacekeeping units in South Ossetia.”[5] Brewing conflict in South Ossetia resulted in an armed attack, launched by Georgia, on the area’s capital, Tskhinvali.[6] Russia retaliated, subdued Georgian forces, and proceeded to invade “sovereign Georgian Territory beyond South Ossetia, even attacking within proximity of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.”[7] As previously mentioned, Russia’s justification for the encroachment was self-defense of its citizens.[8] However, The U.N. and several nation members did not believe Russia’s self-defense claim was justified.[9]

Next came Russia’s questionable involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. In November 2013, progress was being made on economic union negotiations between Ukraine and the European Union.[10] Unfortunately, Ukraine President Yanukovych decided to forgo the agreement with the European Union in order to forge a closer relationship with Russia.[11] This decision resulted in protests that resulted in several casualties between protestors and law enforcement officers. Ultimately, Yanukovych was impeached and Russia sent forces to the Crimea region of Ukraine.[12] There were multiple reasons offered for Russian presence in the Ukraine at that time. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, claimed that Russian presence was necessary leading up to a referendum, at which time Crimea citizens would determine whether they wanted to join Russia or remain as part of the Ukraine.[13] Other reports indicate that the invasion was authorized prior to the impeachment of Yanukovych.[14] Ultimately the referendum resulted in favor of Crimea reunification with Russia. Western Governments, along with the Ukraine Prime Minister, refused to accept the referendum finding that it was staged by Russia.[15] The United States found that the referendum was implemented in violation of the Ukrainian Constitution and among other things was “administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian Military intervention that violates international law.”[16] Despite Western opposition, Russia recognized Crimea’s independence from Ukraine.[17] The United Nations urged States not to recognize Crimea’s independence per the referendum.[18] Russia’s action in Ukraine was thought to have violated Russia’s “international obligations under the U.N. Charter” as well as Russia’s treaties with Ukraine.

Most recently, Russia’s involvement in Syria is stirring up dissent amongst Western nations. Russia claimed its deployment of troops, armor, and other aid to Syria were for the purpose of fighting ISIS and stifling the flow of refugees escaping the war torn nation.[19] Yet, Western nations are once again weary of Russian intentions. In September, 2015 Russia intervened in Syria showing support for the Assad regime.[20] Russian Western nations, particularly the United States have noted that Russia’s aid and attacks in Syria are not actually hitting ISIS, their claimed target.[21]

Though surely not limited to the incidents in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Syria, the relationships between Russia and the West is quickly deteriorating. Western Nations fear that Russia’s pattern of ulterior motives will continue and become detrimental to peace keeping in the west. Russia feels an increasing “need to counter the growing threat of destabilization of the Middle East . . .  [and a] necessity to protect [its] national interests.”[22] The United States continues to distrust Russia, and has accused the Russian Government of committing war crimes in Syria.[23]

It is nearly impossible to predict the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West. However, a quick look at the International agreement that creates the foundation for many of the claims against Russia may help give some insight.


In the aftermath of two separate world wars, the United Nations was created, in the Charter of the United Nations, to promote peaceful negotiations, settlements, and cooperation among nations.[24] The Charter of the United Nations was signed in 1945 by fifty countries including, Russia, The United States of America, Syria, and Ukraine.[25] With the creation United Nations also came the adoption of U.N. legal order, which is “derived from three sources: (1) the UN Charter; (2) Security Council Resolutions; and (3) General Assembly Resolutions”, all of which effectively codified existing international laws.[26]

Significant to this discussion, Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter states, “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.[27]” However, the U.N. Charter does provide an exception that permits the use of force as a self-defense if a nation is under attack until the Security Council can “take[] the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”[28] Also significant to this discussion is the principle of Self-Determination, found in the U.N. Charter Article 1.[29] Self-Determination has been defined as the ability of individuals to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development."[30]


Beginning with the invasion of Georgia, Russia’s actions can arguably be found in violation of the U.N. Charter, or at least as a disregard for their strict obligation to the agreement. The Charter’s exemption for Self-defense is limited to occasions where a nation is under attack and is very limited.[31] Russia’s continued invasion after their initial attack was subdued would not fall within the limited exception enumerated in the Charter. Likewise, the situation in Georgia would provide no defense under the Charter. Russia’s staging of a referendum in order to gain Crimea is in direct conflict with Article 2 that states, “[a]ll members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”[32]

Moreover, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West, especially the United States, goes beyond a potential violation of the U.N. Charter. The issue stems from Russia’s perceived disregard for adherence to commonly accepted international law, which they signed onto, along with what is becoming a trend of doing what’s best for Russia and finding a way to defend it later.

Conversely, Russia sees the situation entirely differently. As some Russia citizens see it, The United States is overstepping their involvement and at fault for any growing tensions, not Russia.[33] Further, the issue may not even be Russia’s involvement in Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria, but rather Russia’s fight against U.S. Dominance.[34] Though, the Russian perception does not change the historical disregard seen by the Russians on at least two occasions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, Russia’s deteriorating relationship with Western nations, especially the United States, could create an alarming fall out for the entire world. The term another “cold war” has been thrown around, and the conflict has even spread into United States political debates with claims of Russian cyber-leaks, and hacking of the political election. The escalation of the disdain between the United States and Russia has many worried, in fact, Mikahil Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, is now advocating for conversation and “de-escalation” between the two world leaders. Others speculate based on Russia and the United States tumultuous past, that this is no more than an uptick in animosity that will result in no extensive harm. Ideally, the presidential election will provide a cooling off period between Russia and the United States, lessening tension throughout Western nations. Yet, only time can really tell.  

* * * * *

[1]2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts, CNN (Mar. 31, 2016, 11:07 AM),

[2] Robert P. Chatham, Defense of Nationals Abroad: The Legitimacy of Russia's Invasion of Georgia, 23 Fla. J. Int'l. L. 75, 77 (2011).

[3] Id. at 76.

[4] Id. at 77.

[5] Id. at 78.

[6] Id. at 79.

[7] Id.

[8] On August 8, 2008, the day of Russian invasion, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated, “I must protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are. We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished. Those responsible will receive a deserved punishment." Georgia conflict: Key statements, BBC (Aug. 19, 2008 4:20 PM),

[9] See Id.

[10] Trevor McDougal, A New Imperialism? Evaluating Russia's Acquisition of Crimea in The Context of National and International Law, 2015 BYU L. Rev. 1847, 1847 (2015).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 1847-48.

[14] Id. at 1848.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 1848-49. (internal quotations omitted).

[17] Id. at 1849; see also Jim Heintz, Crimea Parliament Declares Independence from Ukraine After Referendum, Huffington Post (May 17, 2014),

[18] McDougal, supra note 10, at 1849-50.

[19] Timothy Snyder, The Real Reason Russia is ‘Helping’ Syria, Time (Sept. 30, 2015),

[20] Sam Heller, Russia is in Charge in Syria: How Moscow Took Control of the Battlefield and Negotiating Table, War on the Rocks (June 28, 2016),

[21] See What is Russia Doing in Syria?, Worldpost, Huffingtonpost (Dec. 4, 2015, 12:39 PM),; see also Sarah Lain, What does Russia Actually Want in Syria?, CNN (Oct. 5, 2016 2:07 PM),

[22] Russia’s goal in Syria is to ensure national security – PM Medvedev, RT (Nov. 5, 2016 8:40 PM),[23] Are Russia and the US entering a new Cold War?, AlJAZEERA (Oct. 10, 2016 9:12 PM),

[24] U.N. Charter art. 1; see also Marissa A. Mastroianni, Comment: Russia Running Rogue?: How the Legal Justifications for Russian Intervention in Georgia and Ukraine Relate to the U.N. Legal Order, 46 Seton Hall L. Rev. 599, 604.

[25] U.N. Charter art. 1, see History of the United Nations, United Nations (last visited November 5, 2016)

[26] Mastroianni, supra note 24, at 604.

[27] U.N. Charter supra, note 24, art. 2, ¶ 4.

[28] Id. chap. 1, art. 51.

[29] Id. art. 1. §2.

[30] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights art. 1, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 1, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 3; see also Mastroianni, supra note 1, at 607.

[31] See U.N. Charter supra, note 24, art. 2, ¶ 4.

[32] Id.

[33] Matthew Chance, Russian Relations with the West at New Low, CNN (Oct. 14, 2016),

[34] Id.