Research Portfolio Post #5 : Research Proposal 2

I am proposing to research the Soviet Union and Russian Federation’s relationship with International Law because I am seeking an explanation for trends of extrajudicial assassinations on foreign soil (EJAFS), starting from the Stalinist Soviet Era to Putin’s current regime. This will help readers understand how international law has been and is (re)calibrated.

The Soviet definition of defection is broader than the West’s in which a defector is an individual who cooperates with a hostile foreign intelligence service.1 Given that Soviet citizens were prohibited from leaving the country to settle elsewhere, those who sought political asylum were labeled defectors.2The detestation of defectors is deeply codified in the Soviet-Russian collectivist narrative. In 2010, Putin stated: “traitors will kick the bucket, believe me.” 3 Putin’s ominous rhetoric expressed “what has been known for a long time,” a State Duma deputy told the New Yorker. 4

Among other targets, Stalin’s Great Terror campaign purged enemies-of-the-state that defected abroad. Under the Directorate of Special Tasks, established within the NKVD, officers had the right to liquidate defectors abroad without additional documentation.5The 1937 Operational Decree No. 00447 acted as a “cookbook used by thousands of NKVD agents” to murder scores of individuals and emigre leaders participating in anti-Soviet activities emerged as primary targets.6 It was also during this campaign that many members of the Soviet intelligence community began defecting to Western Europe. For example, former agent Ignace Reiss announced his defection in a defiant letter to Stalin and was later assassinated by NKVD in Switzerland in 1937. 7In one of its declassified reports, the CIA details the 1940 assassination of Leonid Trotsky in a Mexican suburb and reveals both “the ruthless tenacity and skill of the Soviet service.”8

Another CIA declassified memo chronicles the policies and techniques of the KGB’s special operations, also known as their as “wet work” (Mokryee Dela). 9 The 1964 report states that these operations were “designed to demonstrate that the Soviet regime can strike its enemies anywhere in the world”; however, the report also concluded that the Soviets were increasingly concerned with the adverse publicity generated by EJAFS.10Indeed, assassinations outside the Soviet bloc dwindled during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. 11Rumors even circulated that Yeltsin categorically forbade the conduct of such extra-judicial retaliation. 12 Similarly, after a historical trend of EJAFS by the CIA, U.S. President Ford enacted E.O. 11905 which explicitly forbade government employees to engage such practices. 13 Nonetheless, EJAFS practices crept back into domestic and international law. The idea of ‘compulsion of legality’ offers a possible explanation.14 Once the state practice of lethal force has been recognized as systematic, it needs to be dealt with in legal terms. 15

A large chunk of scholarly literature is dedicated to assessing Israeli and U.S. policies of targeted killings (TK). The means and methods of vary, but the common element of all TKs is that lethal force is intentionally used against a target specifically identified in advance. 16 The term is traced back to 2000 after Israel publicized its policy of TKs against alleged terrorists in Occupied Palestinian Territories.17Similarly, the U.S. Legal Adviser to State Department outlined the government’s legal justifications for TKs, based on its asserted right to self-defense.18According to a Foucauldian perspective, when fundamental legal terms (i.e. self-defense) begin to accommodate the phenomena of TKs, these basic concepts are recalibrated within the constellation of international law. 19This induction of TK policies into the legal discourse may have enabled its manifestation into Russia’s domestic law. The UN Special Report highlights Russia as the third state having legally codified a policy on TKs. 20

In 2006, the Russian Parliament passed a law permitting security services to kill alleged terrorists overseas, if authorized by the President.21Russian legislators “insisted that they were emulating Israeli and US actions” by legalizing the use of special forces abroad against extremism.22After earlier administrations formally disbanded it, Putin codified EJAFS into domestic law once again—a possible example of the ‘compulsion of legality’. Putin invokes international law to justify Russia’s behavior as globally acceptable. In his 2014 address to the State Duma justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin mentions international law six times. 23 Putin emphasizes interpretations of international law that focus on previous violations by other states, which improves Russia’s appearance and damages the integrity of the West. 24

In 2012, Putin signed another law redefining treason so that Russians working for foreign intelligence and citizens who pass state secrets to foreign organizations can be convicted. 25While Putin’s rhetoric is more deeply steeped in the counterterrorism lexicon, the underpinnings of the legislation harken back to Stalin’s decrees. Targets of both domestic laws similarly capture the “traitors” on foreign soil. Most recently, former military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal was poisoned in England and the British Prime Minister, Theresa May asserted that the action is an “unlawful use of force by Russian against the U.K”. 26The UN Special Report affirms that TKs conducted in the territory of other States raise sovereignty concerns because, under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, States are forbidden from using force in the territory of another State. 27

One could argue that the State’s violations of international norms and ex-post facto justification is a continuation of its shaping of international law. By violating a norm, the perpetrator suspends said norm, transforms it into a symbol lacking enforcement, and thus impinges on its validity. 28Thus, a number of scholars argue that the international legal community focus on strengthening legal norms prohibiting extrajudicial assassinations. 29Others contend that TKs should be analyzed via ways that capture the moral complexities rather than simply condemning or exonerating them.30Lastly, some scholars claim that concentrating on the technicalities of particular legal codes distracts from the tragedy.31

Generally, why are EJAFS codified into domestic law under some states/administrations compared to others? Readers should care about this topic because it offers insight into how contradictions of international norms recalibrate international law. More specifically: why is it that, between Stalin’s regime and Putin’s, EJAFS are enshrined in domestic law at times and disbanded during others?



[1] “Defectors, Soviet Era.” Encyclopedia of Russian History, The Gale Group Inc. September 30, 2018)

[2] Ibid

[3] Shehab Khan. “Video Re-emerges of Putin Threat That ‘traitors Will Kick the Bucket’,” The Independent, March 07, 2018. September 30, 2018.

[4] Joshua Yaffa. “Putin’s New War on ‘Traitors’,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2018.

[5] Central Intelligence Agency, “Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping” CIA Historical Review Program, Written. Feb. 1964, Declassified Sept. 1993,, Accessed September 28th, 2018.

[6] Paul S. Gregory. Lenin’s Brain and Other Talesfrom the Secret Soviet Archive, 1. (Stanford, California, Stanford University: Hoover Institution Press, 2008) p. 48.

[7]Stephen Schwartz. “Intellectuals and Assassins – Annals of Stalin’s Killerati,” The New York Times.January 24, 1988. Accessed September 30, 2018.

[8] Central Intelligence Agency, “Leonid Trotsky, Dupe of the NKVD” CIA Historical Review Program, Written. Feb. 1964, Declassified July 1996, September 30, 2018.

[9] CIA “Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping”

[10] Ibid

[11] Christopher Andrew. “Counting the Cost of Putin’s War against ‘traitors’.” The Sunday Times, March 18, 2018. Accessed September 30, 2018.

[12] Ibid

[13] Exec. Order No. 11905, 3 C.F.R. (1976).

[14] David Dyzenhaus. ‘The Compulsion of Legality’ as cited in Susanne Krasmann, “Targeted killing and its law: on a mutually constitutive relationship,” Leiden Journal of International Law 25, no.3 (July 2012): 669

[15] Susanne Krasmann, “Targeted killing and its law: on a mutually constitutive relationship,” Leiden Journal of International Law 25, no.3 (July 2012): 680

[16] Philip Alston, ‘Study on Targeted Killings’, United Nations General Assembly, May 28, 2010,

[17] Ibid

[18] Harold Koh, Legal Adviser, Department of State, The Obama Administration and International Law, Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Soc’y of Int’l Law (25 Mar. 2010).

[19] Susanne Krasmann, “Targeted killing and its law: on a mutually constitutive relationship,” Leiden Journal of International Law 25, no.3 (July 2012): 680

[20] Philip Alston, Ibid

[21] Federal Law No. 35-FZ on Counteracting Terrorism (2006) available at: . Accessed September 28, 2018.

[22]Steven Eke, “Russia Law on Killing Extremists Abroad” BBC, November 26, 2006.

[23] Address by President of the Russian Federation (March 18, 2014)

[24]Meghan Bodette, “Dangerous precedents: Russia’s use and misuse of international law.”Nations & States. February 25, 2016. September 29, 2018.

[25] “Laws of Attrition, Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency.” Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2015, Accessed September 29, 2018.

[26] Tom Ruys. “License to Kill” in Salisbury: State-sponsored Assassinations and the Jus Ad Bellum.” Just Security, March 15, 2018. Accessed September 30, 2018.

[27] Alston, Ibid

[28] Krasmann, Ibid 681

[29] Jason Fisher, “Targeted killing, norms, and international law”, Columbia Journal Transnational Law 45, (2007) p. 712.

[30] Stephen de Wijze, “Targeted killing: a ‘dirty hands’ analysis,” Contemporary Politics 15, no. 3 (September 2009): 305-320.

[31] Thomas Gregory, “Drones, targeted killings, and the limitations of international law” International Political Sociology, 9, (2015), p. 197.

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2 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #5 : Research Proposal

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    Dr. Boesenecker

    You have a good deal of background information here that informs your proposed research, Tina, and that is great. I think that a bit more can be done to make the *conceptual* (theoretical) aspect of the puzzle a bit more clear, though. The initial statement — “…seeking an explanation for trends of extrajudicial assassinations on foreign soil…” — doesn’t quite get us to the clear why/what explains type of puzzle that highlights the outcome (or the pattern of variation) to be explained. The kernel is there, but what is it more specifically about these trends that you seek to explain? What would the dependent variable be in the proposed research? Thinking about these things, and connecting them back to theory some more, will help solidify the puzzle (what Booth et al. call the conceptual problem) for your research project.

    • Tina
      Tina Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I think that what I am trying to explain is why the practices of EJAFS are codified into domestic law and justified using international law at some points during the Soviet/Russian historical timeline and why the practice is disbanded at other times. My dependent variable would be the legitimization of EJAFS as domestic policy. Why is it that the “compulsion of legality” is triggered under some circumstances while the “adverse publicity” acts as a deterrence in others? At what point does a state feel that the international community will accept their violations of norms and their ex post facto justifications (paradoxically steeped in international legal jargon) ?