Sunday, February 16, 2014

What is the Russian Brand of International Law?

Before understanding how Russia's recent actions - particularly negotiating with Iran on an oil deal, but also its foreign agents bill, Syria, etc. - affect the "legitimacy" of international law, it is important to see what is Russia's strategy to approaching international law. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and the former Soviet Republics have rejected the Soviet dualist approach to implementation of international law in domestic legal systems. [1] Included in the 1993 constitution of the Russian Federation are clauses that Russia accepts the treaties by which the Soviet Union was bound (importantly keeping its spot on the UN Security Council), and Article 15(4) provides that "the generally recognized principles and norms of international law and the international treaties of the Russian Federation shall constitute an integral part of its legal system." So integral that it includes that it states "if an international treaty of the Russian Federation establishes other rules than those stipulated by the law, the rules of the international treaty shall apply." [2]

From the plain language of the text, it would seem that Russia has a broad application of international law. However, the writers' optimism does not guarantee international law will have such strength. The actual status of international in Russia is determined by a few factors including the nature and applicability of the law, democratic institutions, rule of law, and participation in international institutions. [3]

With Russia accepting the treaties that bound the Soviet Union and using treaties to form its domestic law, it seems that international law's status in Russia places treaties in very high regard. Such actions make sense, especially since it let Russia keep a spot on the UN Security Council. On the other hand, how does Russia hold customary international law? One important element of customary international law is opinio juris, which gives a state conform to what they believe to be a legal obligation. [4] Although the UN Security Council imposed some sanctions on Iranian nuclear development, it has not placed restrictions on Iranian trade. However, it has been the custom of nations to place restrictions or sanctions on Iranian trade to further enforce UN Security Council sanctions.

With Russia being a permanent member of the Security Council that placed such restrictions, why does Russia not feel a legal obligation to place its own sanctions on Iranian trade like most nations? One suggestion is that because Russia holds treaties in such high regard, it dismisses customary international law. Zimnenko in "International Law and the Russian Legal System" asserts that Russia only uses to international norms to interpret national legal norms. [5] Another suggestion is that Russia does not see this as a legal issue at all, but rather political, seeing as the West are the majority of the supporters on Iranian sanctions. Or rather, Russia sees the political advantages of establishing trade with Iran substantially outweigh following international norms or implicitly enforcing UN sanctions. Regardless, the Russian brand of international law leaves one wanting to know the extent to which politics affects Russia's application, or lack thereof, of international legal norms.


[1] and [3] - Danilenko, Gennady M. "Implementation of International Law in CIS States: Theory and Practice." European Journal of International Law 1st ser. 10 (1999): 51. Web.
[2] - "Konstitutsiya Rossiiskoi Federatsii" Konstitutsiya Rossiiskoi Federatsii. N.p., n.d. Web. 2014.

[4] - Janis, Mark W., and Mark W. Janis. "Customary International Law." International Law. New York: Aspen, 2008. 48. Print.
[5] - Zimnenko, B. L., and William Elliott Butler. International Law and the Russian Legal System. Utrecht: Eleven International, 2007. Print. 


  1. Nice post. One of the Kremlin’s top priorities is improving the country’s foreign investment reputation. A decade ago (when I was working in Russia), there was a widespread view, however, that the concept of ‘law’ was still subordinate to the Kremlin leadership. The arbitrary nature of law/contract enforcement chased many potential investors away. Has the climate improved since then? I was reminded of this when I watched some of 60 Minutes on Sunday. If you haven’t watched this segment, it’s worth a view.

  2. Sorry for the late response, but thanks for the link, Ray! I missed that segment on 60 Minutes. I am looking to research and post more on Russia's foreign investment, and its relationship and effect on international law.