Intervention is Dead, Long Live Intervention

The final US service member to depart Afghanistan, Major General Chris Donahue, boards a cargo plane at Kabul airport on 29 August 2021. Courtesy of US Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons

As so often happens when something is declared ‘over’, new signs of life in the intervention debate have quickly begun to emerge in response to the war in Ukraine.

The end of the (latest) Western intervention in Afghanistan may signal the end, for now, of one model – that of comprehensive, multi-agency interventions designed to reshape and rebuild the state itself, even if the original intention might have been something else. The French withdrawal from Mali compounds this, ending a long-running (primarily) bilateral counterterrorism operation. But this is most certainly not the end of Western intervention in conflicts.

As we have seen in Ukraine, there are still times when Western interests – and public opinion – mean that standing by and doing nothing is no longer an option. The unprovoked and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine has reversed any trend towards isolation in the West, pushing governments into concerted action. But the invasion of Iraq has cast a long shadow, in some quarters undermining perceptions of the West’s legitimacy in criticising Russian aggression. The stakes in Ukraine are also unusually high, with the threat of nuclear weapons use should certain boundaries be overstepped.

The West now finds itself in a dilemma about how to intervene – what actions to take in order to influence the outcome of the crisis that are not reliant on putting boots on the ground, and that instead draw on political and economic deterrence and response as well as indirect military support.

Partners and Proxies

Western military intervention in conflict is not off the table entirely. The UK still has peacekeeping troops in Mali, under UN auspices. But this is a modest contribution, and Western countries provide a minority of global peacekeeping troops (albeit the majority of funds, plus other support). And deployment of UN peacekeeping troops remains primarily reserved for Africa, often taking over from or working in partnership with regional forces several years into a crisis.

Still, calls for Western countries to send weapons and military supplies to Ukraine have been heeded, even triggering a fundamental shift in EU and German post-war foreign policy. The relative lack of argument against such a policy in the UK is also noticeable, with a broad spectrum of the media arguing that military assistance is essential.

This is not, in itself, a new model. During the Cold War, this model of indirect intervention in ‘proxy wars’ was common in the developing world, with disastrous consequences. More recently, the US, the UK and others sent substantial non-lethal supplies to Syria to support rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad, while Russia and Iran provided considerable hardware and soldiers (mostly paramilitary) to support the regime. In parts of Africa, the West has also chosen to support national and regional partners through training and equipment, bankrolling AMISOM in Somalia as well as supporting the G5 and the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. Others, like Turkey and the Gulf states, have increasingly also adopted this model.

The invasion of Ukraine raises real questions about how to reset international norms around intervention and rebuild the architecture dedicated to upholding those norms

The primary intention of support of this kind is generally to achieve military (sometimes including counterterrorism) and stabilisation objectives. But the effects can be counterproductive for stability. Conflict can be prolonged instead of ended; excessive or indiscriminate use of force can stoke grievances and deepen divisions; and armed groups can evolve into radicalised ones, as happened in Afghanistan and Syria. Such relationships also have, as the International Committee of the Red Cross put it, ‘the potential, exercised or not, to positively influence the protection afforded to those not fighting’. Support for a government or regional force is also easier to justify than supporting a non-state armed group, which raises questions of legality and legitimacy.

Current military support to Ukraine clearly responds to an immediate need, but in the longer term the lines between combatant and civilian, and between offensive and defensive military support, may not be as clear cut. Provision of military support in a prolonged conflict situation would need more careful thought, particularly should it in future be intended for resistance groups. Ukraine is not alone in this. Lessons should be learnt from the experience of Syria and other conflicts, including around vetting and tracking of recipients and minimising civilian harm.

Challenge to the Multilateral Conflict Architecture?

Normally, the multilateral conflict architecture – with the UN Security Council (UNSC) at its heart – would respond in a case like Ukraine. But as the aggressor is a permanent member of the UNSC, the normal tools at its disposal – statements, sanctions and peacekeeping operations – are not available. Russia predictably vetoed a UNSC resolution demanding an end to the attack on Ukraine, and while the UN General Assembly subsequently passed it, the General Assembly has little power in this situation. The breadth of global support for Ukraine is clear, but the numbers abstaining are not insignificant – including countries such as India, as well as many in Africa. A new Cold War could intensify the competition for alignment. All in all, this crisis still raises real questions about how to reset international norms around intervention and rebuild the architecture dedicated to upholding those norms.

Decisions will also be needed about what tools to use to maintain peace in areas where disagreements between the permanent UNSC members are strongest and a UN peacekeeping operation, or even authorisation of a regional or other force, cannot be agreed upon. There is some precedent, in Kosovo, where there was no UNSC resolution for military action. But it places the burden of proof onto the West, to demonstrate the case for their action, and leaves the legality and legitimacy of the intervention open to question.

European states have over the years developed a number of mechanisms through which deployments could be managed, but these have rarely been used and would need significant effort to operationalise. In Africa, regional operations are more common, but have struggled to establish sustainable finance and support. Regional response architectures are one possibility, where the UN cannot or will not deploy. But what is likely to be more challenging than having the right mechanisms is securing the political and legal consent for troops to deploy, certainly without provoking wider retaliation.

The international community must seek to use all the prevention, response and accountability tools at its disposal, both for the sake of the Ukrainian people and those who will be affected by the next violent conflict

The other relevant part of the architecture comprises those institutions set up to manage international justice and accountability. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in principle has the power to prosecute war crimes, if not – in the case of Ukraine – aggression. The move by the UK and 38 others to expedite an ICC investigation is unprecedented, while other legal experts have also called for a special tribunal. The barriers to success are high, however, and any prosecutions are likely to take time.

Hybrid War – Bringing in Economic and Soft Power

Both political and military responses are currently far from sufficient to push Russia out of Ukraine, or indeed to end conflict in Mali, Somalia or Syria. This raises the question of what other tools are available and whether they would work. In 2020 the UK announced the launch of its ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions regime following a similar US model, with the name derived from a Russian tax lawyer who died in a Russian jail after uncovering corruption.

The US, the UK and others have announced unusually large packages of sanctions against Russian institutions and individuals. It is not clear yet what impact these will have on President Vladimir Putin’s decision-making – although their effect on the economy can already be seen, and inevitably normal people will suffer. Further economic decoupling seems inevitable, to decrease mutual economic dependence and strengthen national security. This will obviously further reduce the leverage the West has in the future, as well raising the challenge of how to create incentives for cooperation and prevent permanent fractures forming.

The pressures now being brought to bear on Russia also go far beyond these formal governmental responses. A wider information battle is underway in the court of public opinion. Within the West, this battle has largely been won. In addition to public donations, a long list of companies have now announced they will withdraw from sales in Russia, and cultural and sporting organisations have taken similar actions, boycotting Russian artists and sportspeople. Whether or not this is a pragmatic business decision to pre-empt possible sanctions, the court of public opinion has spoken.

The Future Architecture

The international community may not be able to prevent the conflict in Ukraine from getting worse, in the short term at least. But it can and must seek to sharpen and use all the prevention, response and accountability tools at its disposal, both for the sake of the Ukrainian people and those who will be affected by the next violent conflict. This will require governmental actors not used to working together to learn to do so effectively – not just the ‘defence, development, diplomacy’ trio of interventions past, but including economic and financial actors as well.

This will be even more challenging, since the current crisis is driving a new wedge between the great powers, with economic decoupling the new security priority and division at the heart of the UN peace and security architecture. Given this, the central challenge for the future is likely to be how to rebuild and strengthen norms and institutions that can more effectively prevent and halt conflict, and how to create incentives for cooperation in the interests of global peace and security in a world that is increasingly diverging.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Imogen Parsons

Former Senior Research Fellow

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