What do Macedonia in 1992, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011  and Crimea in 2014 all have in common? If you answered they were all targets of third party military  interventions to prevent the escalation of armed violence you would be right.

Since the end of the Cold War – the world has witnessed   a number of such interventions but these six  stand out because the intervener  in each instance  made specific reference to the need  to take  early and concerted  action   in anticipation that left unattended the situation would deteriorate further.

Three cases referred to the need to protect ordinary citizens as in Libya, Kosovo  and Crimea   while three others spoke to the potential for regional instability or threats to global security as in the case of Iraq, Macedonia and Afghanistan. Kosovo, Crimea  and Iraq were carried out  without  the imprimatur of the United Nations while Libya, Afghanistan and Macedonia  found sanction  under UN Charter law.

Though these interventions vary widely in terms of duration and intensity, the underlying operational premise was  the same in each case:  the risks of waiting until the situation worsened  were simply too great.Preventing conflict even if it means violating territorial integrity, using force or acting unilaterally is  appropriate.

In a precedent setting mission in 1992,  the UN deployed a small number of peacekeepers to  Macedonia which had just  broken away from Yugoslavia. Mindful  that the  Macedonian situation might  destabilize the region further, the UN’s Preventive Deployment force (UNPREDEP) was mandated to act like a trip wire deterrent signaling to adversaries that their violence might induce  NATO to intervene. It was that underlying escalatory threat potential that succeeded in bringing stability to Macedonia until the mission wound down in 1998.

In 1999 Kosovo, NATO led a short two month bombing campaign against  Yugoslav forces thought to be engaged in acts of widespread  ethnic cleansing. Subsequent evidence showed that targeted killings had indeed taken place on a relatively small scale. The Kosovo intervention is exemplary  because even though it failed to derive UN sanction, the principle of protecting ordinary citizens was justified according to a subsequent commission that reviewed the case.

In 2001,  two parallel preventive missions were launched in Afghanistan. The first a US  effort called Enduring Freedom destroyed the capacity of al Qaida to prevent it from launching further attacks on the United States and its allies. Around the same time  NATO’s ISAF mission focused on stablising Afghanistan so it no longer served as the crucible for forces hostile to western interests.. Neither mission has fully succeeded in preventing the recurrence of violence in so far as terrorist cells remain operational in Pakistan and Afghanistan is deteriorating quickly in the face of a stronger  Taliban presence.

In the controversial Iraq  intervention of 2003 by the United States and  a handful of allies, the primary goal was the removal of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein was accused, by US intelligence,  to have  these in his possession and was preparing to use them (he was also initially accused o f being responsible for  9/11 which GW Bush alluded to in several speeches afterwards).

But the intervention was also justified because of Iraq’s perceived threat to regional security  based on Saddam’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait and by his targeting of minority groups such as the Kurds. Evidence of  WMD failed to materialize and the Iraq war stands as the most egregious and destructive misuse of preventive intervention to date. The country is a de facto  failed state and the Kurds an autonomous group within it.

In 2011, a NATO led mission relied on preventive principles  to justify its military intervention in Libya. In his address to the people of the United States in advance of the bombing campaign against government forces, President Obama was quite clear and specific in the intent and purpose of NATO involvement.  The goal was only in his words to prevent further bloodshed by protecting those citizens caught up in the conflict. But we now know that these efforts indirectly brought the regime to the point of collapse and contributed directly to  regional instability in Northern Africa including Mali. Libya’s political situation remains precarious.

In 2014,  Russian forces  entered Crimea to join self defence forces already present in the autonomous republic. Together these forces  proceeded to lock down and secure  military bases so that Ukraine forces could not mobilise. Russia’s leader Putin argued these  actions were necessary  to protect ethnic Russians against perceived threats of violence. We will never know if that violence would have been realized. Notwithstanding  Putin’s end game  for annexing Crimea, the case holds up reasonably well against the preceding examples. One can easily imagine  a scenario where Crimea’s declaration of independence would have encouraged internal turmoil and violence.

Each of these examples demonstrate  that prevention is a useful and   potent tool for political leaders to mask  their real goals and intentions. Even when underpinned by international  law preventive interventions can  produce perverse and unintended outcomes as in Libya and Afghanistan.  When the scope is limited as in Macedonia the outcome can be a positive  one. Where legal sanction is lacking or where there are differences on the objectives sought then we can only anticipate deeper discord and disagreement among the major powers  as in Iraq, Kosovo and Crimea.

While the West may not agree with Putin’s justification for intervening in Crimea we should not be at all surprised that he has chosen to use  the language and rhetoric of prevention. After all, the West  wrote the  book on it. Putin is only reflecting back what he has learned from us.


Ukraine Risk Assessment- scenarios and analysis



David Carment is a CDFAI Fellow and author and editor of several books on conflict prevention including Using Force to Prevent Ethnic Violence: Theory and Evidence (with Frank Harvey)   and Who Intervenes? Understanding Interstate Ethnic Crises(with Patrick James and Zeynep Taydas)

Featured Photo by Wayne Buck.

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