Julia Ioffe is a writer living in New York.
Russian legislators summering in Sochi got a special visit from President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday when he came into town to introduce a bill that would radically expand his powers to declare war and move troops outside Russia’s borders.
The law, as it stands now, is fairly narrow. Russia can mobilize to protect itself from invasion and to fend off aggression. That’s it. Medvedev’s proposed additions, however, would allow Russian troops “to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, world peace, and Russian troops” anywhere in the world. Russian forces would also be allowed to fight piracy, preempt aggression, and intervene in any conflict … anywhere in the world. This is, to say the least, quite broad and gives Medvedev more flexibility to use force in the future, and he made no effort to mask the more immediate impetus for the change, either. “This is connected to the well-known events of last year,” he said, referring to the August war between Russia and Georgia. “These matters must be clearly regulated.”
But the real kicker is the procedural difference: Now, the Russian president can declare war, but the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) has to approve it within 24 hours. Last year, when Russia invaded South Ossetia, the Council was on vacation and decided they didn't feel like coming back to approve what they said was a mere peacekeeping operation in a region full of Russian citizens. A few weeks later and when the war was already over, the conflict devolved into a legal mess: Had it been a legal use of Russian armed forces, or not? Didn’t they need approval to go past Ossetia and into Georgia? As Russia found itself backtracking and defending its invasion internationally, the Council jumped to the rescue and approved the war. But Medevdev’s proposed amendment offers an even better way to clean up the confusion. It gives the president a wide window to get the Council's approval to mobilize troops--in fact, there is no defined time window anymore--which means that the Council’s belated blessing in 2008 falls squarely within the time limit now, which means the Council wasn’t late at all, which means Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation last summer was, actually, perfectly legal. Neat, huh?