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Justifying Aggression: Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Amendments and the Invasion of Ukraine

By: Robert C. Blitt

Beyond the alluring promise of an enhanced social safety net for Russian citizens, President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional amendments of 2020 betrayed a distinct preoccupation with fortifying Russia’s international standing and crafting a new national identity. By Putin’s own account, these amendments were necessary to steel the country against the malevolent action of international conspirators committed to Russia’s downfall. As this Article posits, these specific constitutional changes systematically entrenched an exceptionalist vision of Russian sovereignty and a civilizational identity that left the country constitutionally untethered from international norms and institutions, saturated in religious fervor and visions of imperial glory, and poised for war.

Following a brief introduction, the first main part of this Article explores how enshrining constitutional supremacy, territorial integrity, and the doctrines of peaceful coexistence and noninterference sought to control the impact of international law and to revive Soviet-era legal norms used to dominate neighboring states. The second part turns to the constitutionalization of a new civilizational identity steeped in a heady—if selective—history of imperial entitlement, traditional values, and the protection of compatriots abroad. It argues that these provisions signaled a clear intention to break from Russia’s previous constitutional orientation in favor of confronting a perceived threat posed by unbridled Western “ultraliberalism” bent on destroying Russia’s national identity and security.

Unpacking how the twin ideas of sovereignty and civilizational identity have embedded themselves in Russia’s constitutional structure facilitates drawing a direct connection between the amended constitution and Kremlin foreign policy objectives. It further demonstrates how these principles equipped the Kremlin with

constitutional succor in justifying its war of aggression against Ukraine. The Article concludes by situating the constitutional amendments within the larger trend of “autocratic legalism” and urging the international community to recognize the Kremlin’s constitutionally embedded motivations for war.

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