What explains the trends of extrajudicial assassinations on foreign soil from the Stalinist Soviet Era to Putin’s current regime? The state-sponsored assassination of defectors on foreign soil may not be exclusive to Russia; but, a comprehensive look at its historical timeline exposes a politically oscillating phenomenon. It is often the secret intelligence agencies that perpetrate the extrajudicial killings; but, the historical prevalence of said crimes fluctuates given the leader at the helm of the nation. I am considering conducting a comparative statistical analysis of extrajudicial assassinations from the time of Stalin’s Great Purge to the more-recent poisoning of a Soviet defector, Sergei Skripal to explain this tendency. That said, after reading more on the topic, the state’s relationship with international law emerged as a critical dimension to the puzzle.
Not only did the Soviet Union play an influential role in shaping the field International Law (especially post-WWII), but one could also argue that the state’s violations of international law and ex-post facto manipulation of it is a continuation of its shaping of international law1. International law is essentially accepted by all states as a legitimate formula for action whereas unbridled national interest is not. Russia invokes international law to elude culpability and justify its actions as globally acceptable. Has international law evolved in tandem with Soviet/Russian legal perspectives and its extrajudicial assassination practices on foreign soil? If so, what explains the parallel evolutions of Soviet Union/Russian Federation’s extrajudicial assassinations and International law?This feedback loop would be an interesting concept to unpack. For this research, I would rely more on historical tracing, to elucidate the reciprocal relationship between the USSR/Russia and international law (maintaining the timeline constant).
The Soviet Definition of International Law, which espouses Marxist-Leninist ideologies, championed state sovereignty and self-determinism and opted for a positivistic interpretation of law over customary law1. At the time, many Soviet jurisprudence experts dismissed international law as inherently “bourgeois”; however, this line of thinking was later overshadowed by a more pragmatic approach2. Law professor Andrei Vyshinskii argued that Soviet participation in shaping international law could be advantageous, and the Soviet Union began wielding international law as a tool of foreign policy. Later Vyshinkii became the procurator general of the USSR and provided legal expertise for the Moscow Trials2. During the volatile period of Stalin’s Great Terror campaign, Soviet citizens were prohibited by law from leaving the country to settle elsewhere and those who sought political asylum were branded defectors. The 1929 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee bestowed the GPU (State Political Directorate) with the right to “liquidate” defectors abroad without additional documentation3. The NKVD special operations unit organized overseas assassinations of political enemies and personal rivals of Stalin. By 1937 extralegal measures and kangaroo courts ran rampant, and under Vyshinskii a man named Aron Trainin outlined a Soviet version of international criminal law2. His legal definitions were not only borrowed in the Nuremberg Charter but also strongly influenced international law.
In his book Russian Approaches to International Law, Lauri Mälksoo provides a detailed analysis of how Russia’s perception of international law has developed to offer the reader insight into Russia’s engagement with international law4. This big-picture analysis will help inform my research. I think that by unpacking the state’s trends of extrajudicial assassinations, it will help explain the state’s (reciprocal) relationship with international law, and vice versa.
1.Oliver, Rozanne D. Soviet International Law: Theory and Practice. Honors theses, University of Richmond, 1972.
2. Hirsch, Francine. “The Soviets at Nuremberg: International Law, Propaganda, and the Making of the Postwar Order.”The American Historical Review113, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 701-30. doi:10.1086/ahr.113.3.701.
3. Kolpakidi, Alexander, and Klim Degtyarev.Внешняя разведка СССР (Soviet Foreign Intelligence). Moscow: Litres, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=YhjhdPgUGF8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
4. Mälksoo, Lauri.Russian Approaches to International Law. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.