Color Revolutions Interference in Domestic Politics Regime Change Regime Transformation Revolutionism Russia

Towards a Treaty Limiting Interference by One State in the Domestic Politics of Another State

by Gordon M. Hahn

Our interconnected, ‘globalized’ world is shattering state borders and sovereignty. One state can interfere in the domestic politics of another now simply with the pressing a few buttons of a laptop on an hourly or some other temporal interval’s basis. There is no need any longer to send spies or special ops forces or massive sums of cash. Interfering in the domestic politics of another country has become relatively easy, forcing authoritarian regimes to crack down more than they might otherwise choose to do.

The great powers — the U.S., China, and Russia — and others routinely violate international bans on interfering in the domestic politics of another state. For example, the Budapest Memorandum much cited by Western officials and pundits after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 to prove Putin had violated international law and the ‘rules of the game,’ pledged Russia and the U.S. to a “commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the so-called ‘Helsinki Final Act, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” (“Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances,” Council on Foreign Relations, 5 December 1994, Aside from billions of dollars spent on building networks of people opposed to the ‘pro-Russian’ Viktor Yanukovych before the 2013 Maidan demonstrations began, US deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland, US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt, and US Senators, including the late John McCain and Smith attended the demonstrations, encouraging the protestors to persist or giving speeches from the Maidan podium, not just handing out cookies. This activity constituted a violation of the Helsinki Final Act’s clauses banning the interference of member-states of the OSCE in the domestic politics of its other member-states, specifically the Final Act’s Section VI on ‘Non-Intervention in Internal Affairs’ [“Helsinki Final Act, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helsinki, 1975,”,, p. 5, last accessed 4 February 2016; for more detail see Gordon M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West and the “New Cold War” (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 2018), pp. 188-9]. Such activity also violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations ( Thus, the West violated the Final Act upon which Budapest was based before Russia decided to retaliate, protect itself from losing its Black Sea Fleet naval base, and perhaps preempt civil war in Crimea which would have automatically brought Russia into the civil war since per treaty with Kiev the base and the peninsula were home at the time to thousands of Russian naval and other military personnel.

Such behavior threatens the stability of the international politics and the international system based on sovereign states and raises some important questions of international politics and law. Can, for example, Poland legally support/harbor a Belarussian revolutionary, why can’t Belarus (or Russia) support Polish (or American) revolutionaries? Simply because Poland is a democracy and therefore ‘morally superior’ does it have the right to destabilize other less democratic states ? If moral superiority is the standard, then who defines what is sufficient morally superiority justifying or legalizing interference in the domestic politics of a target state ? In other words, what degree of democratic ‘superiority’ justifies such interference? Should countries with a ‘1’ rating out of the possible seven ratings in the Freedom House ‘Freedom Survey’ be allowed to interfere in the affairs of countries with a ‘2’ rating?

Then there is the problem of what constitutes interference? In the present case of Belarus should Belarusian citizens’ managing from Poland a news Internet channel on a social networking site be considered illegal or legal activity under any treaty and body of international law designed to regulate or prevent outside interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states?  It certainly seems likely that such activity would more likely (but not necessarily) be determined to be legal than would, say, foreign hacking of the servers of another country’s political party or foreign politicians and diplomats actively encouraging on the ground political demonstrators in another country as was done by U.S. and other Western politicians and diplomats in Ukraine in 2014. In that case, can Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Gennadi Zyuganov, or the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the US come to the U.S. and support Black Lives Matter, the KKK, the Democratic and Republican Party?  Should encouragement or management of opposition activity over the Internet be considered less intrusive than on the ground in-person support? What about financial support for foreign political parties’, causes, or actors? Most countries ban such financial intervention into their domestic politics. Then there is the issue of nationals of one country operating independently or semi-independently to interfere in a country’s domestic politics.

So, should there be an agreement — an international treaty — that no state can engage in interference in the domestic affairs of another? It seems international security is at stake. It just might be that today a revolution is being driven in Belarus by a small operation called NEXTA TV on Telegram. The limited scale project apparently involves some 4 Belarusian citizens based in Warsaw, likely receiving small amounts of funding from the Polish and perhaps other Western governments. Although democracy is certainly worth struggling for, should the struggling done by those who reside in the country, so that they make the key decisions about how long and hard to struggle. It is arguable of course that the NEXTA TA project is the kind of minimalist outside support that is justifiable and would fall outside the scope of illegal conduct as defined in any treaty. On the other hand, even if there is no more to Western support, should this level destabilize Belarus, which then leads to destabilization of Russia next door, which then leads to the theft of nuclear, chemical, biological, and/or radiological weapons or materials by one or more groups in a new Russian civil war, proliferation and much else may be out the window.

The ways such a treaty might be achieved are worth pursuing for the sake of international law, stability and security. The process could begin with an international conference of political scientists, international lawyers, and statesmen, no matter how difficult the latter my be to find these days. Such a conference would best be held under the auspices of an international organization of some prestige and authority. The UN or, better, the OSCE would be logical choices. Unfortunately, both are beset biases in one direction or another, with the latter in the forefront of Western democratic states’ efforts to pressure authoritarian states to democratize and to do so in ways that the former rigorously define but over which they themselves experience intense internal disagreements. It also would be good if such a discussion is convened very, very soon.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group,

He is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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