The Abuse of “Peacekeeping”


| Mar 3, 2022

Russian Peacekeepers
​On 21 February, President Vladimir Putin explained that Russian forces would enter Ukraine to “perform peacekeeping functions.” Earlier this year the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) also deployed “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan, predominately made up of Russian troops.

Peacekeeping has become central to Russia’s policy to pursue continued interest in the “near abroad”—former Soviet republics. However, Russian uses of the term “peacekeeping” have drawn criticism. This post explains why the use of this term by Russia is problematic in light of its historical development under the remit of the United Nations (UN) and the principles associated with it.

Russia’s “Peacekeeping” Engagement

Russia has a long history of framing its military intervention as peacekeeping which stems from Russian policy in the early 1990s to protect vital interests around the “near abroad.” The wars in the former Yugoslavia put peacekeeping on the Russian foreign policy agenda when Russia made substantial troop contributions to the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia.

However, Russia uses the term “peacekeeping” to describe a multitude of different military operations. For example, Russia conducted military operations in Georgia and Moldova in the 1990s that were also described as peacekeeping. Russian intervention came after protests and unrest erupted due to changes in the official language of those States led to armed conflict.

Russia’s long-term engagement in Georgia, especially in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, culminated in war in 2008 and Russian forces remain present in Moldova almost thirty years on in the form of the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) in Transnistria. In 2020, the Moldovan president, Maia Sandu, called for Russian forces to withdraw from the disputed territory in Transnistria. The UN supported these calls for “unconditional” withdrawal of Russian troops, but Russia refused citing the risk of destabilization of the region. During the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government feared the OGRF could be used as part of a “false flag” provocation to justify an invasion.

Russian “peacekeeping” missions have been described as part of a “co-ordinated strategy of pursuing influence through the limitation of the sovereignty” of other States in the Commonwealth of Independent States. In Georgia, the impetus for “peacekeeping” by Russian forces was to make the “survival of the Georgian state and regime … largely dependent on the presence of Russian military protectors.”

More recently, Russia has been involved in “peacekeeping” efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh after the conflict in late-2020. Russia deployed 1,960 peacekeepers, 90 armored personnel carriers and 380 vehicles. Russian forces have been credited with providing a “sense of security” and it has been speculated that Azerbaijanis could return to the area under Russian protection. However, this is much to the dismay of Armenia whose government plunged into political turmoil following the deployment of Russian forces.

“Peacekeeping” in Ukraine

Peacekeeping has also been discussed in relation to the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine requested a UN peace operation in 2015 with Putin later stating in 2017 that he “did not see anything wrong” with the presence of UN forces or actors who would provide security to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

Russia submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council in September 2017, proposing a UN Support Mission to Protect the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Southeast Ukraine that would be equipped with small arms and light weapons. It was recently suggested that the Russian proposal “can be seen as a sign of Russia’s greater willingness to embrace the primary institution of multilateralism as it is conventionally understood in contemporary international society.”

Placing such faith in the use of multilateralism for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Donbas was misplaced with Russia’s most recent invocation of the term to describe its forces in Ukraine as peacekeepers. Speaking to the media on 22 February the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, expressed concern “about the perversion of the concept of peacekeeping.” He explained, “When troops of one country enter the territory of another country without its consent, they are not impartial peacekeepers. They are not peacekeepers at all.”

When addressing the UN General Assembly on 23 February, Guterres further stated, “We must also be concerned about preserving the integrity of peacekeeping. The United Nations has a long and recognized experience deploying peacekeeping operations—which only take place with the consent of the host country.” The U.S. Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also described the suggestion Russia would carry out peacekeeping functions as “nonsense.” This response is due to the fact that neither the current actions in Ukraine nor the historic examples of Russian “peacekeeping’” as part of the foreign policy on the near abroad equate to the UN’s conception of peacekeeping.

While many international organizations and coalitions undertake military operations that can fall under the general heading of peacekeeping, it is the UN that has led the way in the development of principles that distinguish peacekeeping from other military action. The record establishes that the UN  “has led over 70 peacekeeping operations, more than any other actor.” As a result, those involved with UN peace operations recoil at the use of the term by Putin. For example, the former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, abhorred, “Please don’t use the word ‘peacekeepers’ to describe soldiers invading another country.”

Peacekeeping Principles

According to the UN, “United Nations Peacekeeping helps countries torn by conflict create conditions for lasting peace,” and ”UN Peacekeepers provide security and the political and peacebuilding support to help countries make the difficult, early transition from conflict to peace.” As such, UN forces are facilitators and actively strive for peace. They both protect civilians (by providing security) and undertake peacebuilding activities to secure lasting peace.

It is true that contemporary UN peace operations no longer merely observe peace and often “impose their will on recalcitrant armed groups.” However, it is not the case that peacekeeping includes the overwhelming use of offensive force constituting an invasion that seeks to undermine the victim state and where the intensity of the conflict results in widespread harm to civilians and mass displacement. It difficult to see how Russian forces propose to establish a lasting peace. Instead, there could a lasting occupation.

First laid down in 1958 by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the traditional principles of UN peacekeeping include consent, impartiality, and minimal use of force. These principles have been reinterpreted over time as the role and functions of peacekeeping operations have adapted and been reformed, but at their core remain mostly the same.

The majority of UN peace operations today operate under a Chapter VII mandate, with an authorization for the use of force to protect civilians. Resort to Chapter VII to authorize the use of force does not typically require the consent of the State on whose territory force will be used. However, a UN peacekeeping operation will only deploy with the consent of the host state in respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is because without consent the peace operation would amount to an enforcement action which is often conducted by  coalitions of the willing, as authorized under Chapter VII. Importantly, the UN explains that consent by the State(s) involved represents a “commitment by the parties to a political process” which is key in the distinction between peacekeeping and other uses of military force.

Another of Hammarskjöld’s principles, impartiality, prevents a UN peacekeeping mission from being used to force a political settlement in the interest of one party to the conflict or influence the balance of power. The principle of impartiality again distinguishes the concept of peacekeeping from, for example, a coalition of the willing authorized under Chapter VII that may involve military action directed against an aggressor state. President Putin urged the Ukrainian military to “take power in your own hands” which has been widely interpreted to be an incitement of coup d’état. Such action clearly contradicts the principle of impartiality.

The third principle of UN peacekeeping is that force must only be used for defensive purposes, where Chapter VII authorization is absent.  The use of offensive force would be “beyond the competence” of an operation. With many modern missions holding Chapter VII mandates to protect civilians and use force in defense of the mandate, it has been interpreted to enable UN forces to respond effectively and “silence a source of deadly fire that is directed at United Nations troops or at the people they are charged to protect.” Nonetheless, UN peacekeepers must not take the initiative in the use of force as such action would risk the UN straying into enforcement actions typically undertaken by other actors.


The UN has worked for decades to establish the legitimacy of peacekeeping distinct from other forms of international intervention and uses of military force. This is critical for the UN’s role in the peaceful settlement of disputes and reconstruction of war-torn societies.

The UN vehemently wishes to distance itself from Russian uses of “peacekeeping” that are inherently linked to foreign policies aimed at keeping former Soviet republics within the sphere of Russian influence. Naturally, this is at odds with the UN’s purposes to suppress acts of aggression and ensure the equal rights of all States under international law. Commentators should similarly avoid reproducing any rhetoric that actions undertaken by Russian forces may constitute “peacekeeping.”


Alexander Gilder is Lecturer in International Law and Security at the University of Reading, UK.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons