At the direction of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s military has launched an illegal invasion of Ukraine. Tragically, Western states have neither the ability to stop the invasion, nor the moral authority to condemn it.
Early on Thursday morning, Russia’s government declared it had decided to “conduct a special military operation” aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. Thereafter, reports quickly emerged of Russian airstrikes in or near major Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv. Russian ground forces were then reported to have entered Ukrainian territory and to have seized, after a “fierce battle”, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
As of this writing, battles continue on multiple fronts within Ukraine. There are even indications that Russian forces aim to vanquish the city of Kyiv.
Where, when and how all of this will end remains highly uncertain. As in all wars, the only certainty is this: innocent human beings will suffer immensely.
International law and the use of force against sovereign states
The prohibition against the use of force against sovereign states is a bedrock principle of international law. Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter declares:
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
That prohibition, however, is circumscribed by the right to self-defence. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter states:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security…. [my emphasis]
State practice dating from the Nuremberg Tribunals, as well as the opinions of numerous scholars and jurists, suggest that the right of pre-emptive self-defence has become part of customary international law, but in order for attacks taken in pre-emptive self-defence to be justified, the threat of an attack must be genuine, and an attack must be imminent.
In addition to the right of self-defence, an attack on a sovereign state might be justified on other grounds. Article 1 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide imposes on signatories an obligation to prevent genocide. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution affirming the “responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”, including by non-peaceful means, if other measures fail.
Does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violate international law?
In explaining the Russian government’s rationale for launching these attacks on Ukraine, Putin highlighted the dangers that NATO expansion and increased military development in Ukraine posed to Russia:
As NATO expands to the east, with every passing year, the situation for our country is getting worse and more dangerous. Moreover, in recent days the leadership of NATO has been openly talking about the need to speed up, force the advancement of the alliance’s infrastructure to the borders of Russia. In other words, they are doubling down on their position. We can no longer just watch what is happening. It would be absolutely irresponsible on our part.
Russia’s strenuous objections to Ukrainian membership in NATO can only be understood with due regard to the historical record. Three historical facts loom large in this context.
First, the peoples of the Soviet Union incurred devastating casualties in their victory over the forces of Nazi Germany. Nearly twenty-four million Soviets – the majority of them civilians — died in World War II, far more than the casualties of Germany, Japan, Italy, the U.S., the U.K., France and Canada combined. Of course, Russians have not forgotten the unspeakable suffering their country endured in a war of aggression launched by fascistic, imperialistic forces from a Western European nation.
Second, as a condition to agreeing to the reunification of Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev received assurances from Western governments that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward’ – an assurance that NATO has violated repeatedly.
Third, in 2014, Western governments facilitated a coup in Ukraine which resulted in the violent ouster of a democratically elected, pro-Russian president, followed by the installation of a right-wing, anti-Russian regime. As explained in a recent article by veteran foreign affairs journalist, Joe Lauria:
The two [Ukrainian] provinces [Lugansk and Donetsk] declared independence after the 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Kiev that overthrew democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the violent capital to the Donbass, his base of support, exactly eight years ago Monday, on Feb. 21, 2014. On the next day Parliament, with only opposition leaders present, impeached him.
After anti-Russian language laws were passed by the coup government, hand-picked before the coup by the United States, and after neo-Nazis burned dozens of people alive in a building in Odessa on May 3, 2014, both Lugansk and Donetsk declared independence nine days later on May 12.
The coup government launched a civil war against the separatists, whom they called “terrorists.” In essence the Donbass was defending their democratic rights to vote, as a majority of the region voted for Yanukovych, in an election certified by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the eight years since, as many as 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
With increased shell fire from the government side, according to the OSCE, into the enclaves in recent days, Putin was faced with the decision of whether to abandon the people or risk world condemnation and U.S. and European sanctions and send in Russian forces to protect them.
In explaining Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine, Putin accused Ukraine of committing genocide in the Donbas, stating:
[O]ne cannot look at what is happening there without compassion. It is simply not possible to stand all this anymore. It is necessary to immediately stop this nightmare – the genocide against the millions of people living there, who rely only on Russia, only on us. These aspirations, feelings, pain of people are the main motivation for us to take the decision to recognise the people’s republics of Donbas.
An objective and fair-minded review of the historical record leads inexorably to the conclusion that Russia has legitimate grievances in this conflict. Having legitimate grievances, however, is not the same thing as having a legal right to attack a sovereign state.
With respect to the Russia’s right to defend itself, Ukraine did not launch an attack against Russia. Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that, at the time that Russia’s invasion was launched, an attack on Russia from Ukrainian territory was imminent. Indeed, it is highly implausible that Ukraine’s government would have launched an attack against Russia’s vastly superior military forces. Not only would that have provided to Russia a lawful basis to attack Ukraine, but it would have resulted, almost certainly, in the obliteration of Ukraine’s army.
Moreover, although the suffering of the peoples of the Donbas region is very real, the claim that they have been subjected to a genocide is, at most, tenuous. There is little if any credible evidence that the Ukrainian government or its proxies possess – as required by the Genocide Convention — an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Furthermore, if the Russian government’s true objective was to protect the peoples of the Donbas from genocide, it presumably could have accomplished that goal by limiting its military incursions to the Donbas region. Instead, Russian military forces have entered Ukrainian territory at points far-removed from the conflict in the Donbas. Those forces now threaten Kyiv, which lies approximately 700 km to the west of the Donbas.
Consequently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified on the basis of self-defence or the right to protect. In all likelihood, the invasion violates the vitally important legal prohibition against the use of force against a sovereign state. As such, it must be condemned, unequivocally.
The immorality of war
Quite apart from the illegality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, war is profoundly immoral. Wars invariably inflict incalculable harm on innocent human beings and the natural world – harm which endures long after military conflict has ended. Wars also consume vast economic and human resources that can and should be deployed to enhance the welfare of the people and preserve our planet.
Consequently, war is rarely justified from a moral perspective. Indeed, war is so horrific, inhumane and destructive that, arguably, it is never morally justified.
As a matter of basic decency, Russia’s government ought to have refrained from attacking Ukraine and ought to have persisted in its efforts to resolve its grievances by diplomatic means.
Western powers and Ukraine’s government bear much of the responsibility for this war
Recognizing the illegality and immorality of Russia’s invasion does not mean that Ukraine’s government and its Western allies are blameless in this matter. On the contrary, they, too, bear enormous responsibility for the suffering now being visited upon innocent Ukrainians.
First, had Western powers refrained from intervening in Ukraine’s internal affairs in 2014, it’s entirely possible that we would not be here today. The U.S.-facilitated overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, and Western support for a virulently anti-Russian coup regime that has been infiltrated by neo-Nazis, angered and alarmed the Russian government, for obvious reasons.
Moreover, Western governments had no justification whatsoever for refusing to rule out Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Providing that assurance to Russia, in the form of a legally binding treaty, simply would have honoured a promise that major NATO powers made to the Soviet Union decades ago.
Quite apart from the promise of no eastward expansion by NATO, the Russians have ample reason to fear the presence of a hostile, Western military alliance on their border with Ukraine. Would the U.S. government tolerate the presence of Chinese or Russian military forces on the U.S. border with Mexico or Canada? Would France tolerate the presence of Russian or Chinese military forces in Switzerland?
As stated by retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis:
Putin has been saying throughout this whole thing… that he wanted written guarantees that NATO would not advance up to his border… The problem that we had is that we would not even discuss his number one issue of no NATO in Ukraine on his border. They tried additional rounds of negotiations and one of the last things that Biden said was, again, that we are willing to discuss this — except the only thing that Putin cares about… If we had just been willing to negotiate on the issue, then I think that there is every reason to think that he would not have gone [into Ukriane].
Lt. Col. Davis stresses that an agreement to keep NATO out of Ukraine is not the same thing as demanding that Ukraine become subservient to Russia:
No one is saying you have to become a vassal of Russia. All Russia was even asking was: just be neutral – like Finland. Finland is completely free. Austria, Austria did same thing under the Soviet Union. They were completely free. Nobody took their freedom away from them. Nobody was going to take it away from Ukraine either. They could have had this without bloodshed.
Lt. Col. Davis also dismisses claims that Putin’s ultimate goal is to reconstruct the Soviet empire by subjugating other NATO states in eastern Europe:
There’s no substance to that at all… That’s been used as a lot of justification to send 14,000 U.S. troops now into eastern European countries… Now people are talking about adding to the defence budget of the United States to build it up. There is no evidence that Putin has any interest in attacking a NATO country. To the contrary, he has repeatedly and consistently said he wants to put a buffer between him and NATO. He doesn’t want to go and take NATO because he doesn’t have the force structure to do that.
Decades ago, Western foreign policy experts foresaw that the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders would lead inevitably to a dangerous conflict between Russia and the West.
In 1997, former U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry warned the Clinton administration about Russia’s fears of NATO expansion. Perry was ignored.
So too was one of the leading figures in U.S. foreign policy, George F. Kennan, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era. In 1998, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman interviewed Kennan on the question of NATO expansion. Kennan explained:
I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.
What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was… I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.
Prior to Russia’s invasion, the Trudeau government behaved, as usual, like a dutiful lackey of the U.S. hegemon. It sent Canadian special forces and lethal weapons to Ukraine. Even worse, Canada’s military provided training to Neo-Nazis in Ukraine’s military.
It is entirely plausible that Russia’s government interpreted the gradual insertion of Canadian and other NATO weapons and soldiers into Ukraine as a slow-motion policy of transforming Ukraine into a de facto member of NATO. The reaction of Russia’s military to the West’s arming of Ukraine might well have been that, the longer Russia waited to intervene, the more difficult it would be to use militarily force to stop Ukraine’s formal accession to NATO. In other words, the insertion of Canadian and other NATO soldiers and weapons into Ukraine might well have provoked a Russian military response.
In any event, nothing good has come from the Trudeau government’s provocative acts. Sending Canadian soldiers and weapons to Ukraine obviously failed to deter a Russian invasion. Moreover, and judging from the assessments of multiple military experts, the presence of Canadian and other NATO forces and weapons in Ukraine will not prevent the Ukrainian military’s defeat at the hands of the far more powerful Russian forces. We can’t even exclude the possibility that Canadian weapons will end up in the hands of Russian’s invading forces. In short, Trudeau’s Ukraine policy is an unmitigated disaster, yet for the most part, the corporate media have given a free pass to his government.
Canada and other NATO nations knew all along that they would never respond with military force to a Russian attack on Ukraine, because a direct conflict between Russian and NATO forces might well ignite a nuclear war, with devastating consequences for all of humanity. Instead, Western states have responded to Russia’s invasion with harsh economic sanctions – sanctions that will undoubtedly cause suffering to innocent Russians, including Russians who oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Experience has shown, however, that Russia’s government will not be cowed easily by economic sanctions. Even if the new sanctions ultimately have an effect on the Russian government’s belligerent behaviour, that will take time. In the interim, Ukrainians will die and suffer.
The sordid reality is that, by intervening in Ukraine’s internal affairs, by refusing to rule out Ukrainian accession to NATO, and by providing weapons and soldiers to Ukraine, Western powers have thrown the Ukrainian people under the bus, all in order to embroil Russia in a costly and dangerous conflict. NATO’s claim that it stands with the Ukrainian people would be laughable if it were not for the vast suffering that NATO’s policies will ultimately cause to Ukrainians.
The art of peace requires us to see the world through the eyes of our enemies. That does not mean that we must agree with our enemies or accede to their every demand. It means, rather, that we must endeavour to understand their perspective and to identify those of their grievances that are legitimate and that merit discussion and compromise.
As Lt. Col. Daniel Davis argues, the best way to end this conflict is to provide to Russia written, legally binding guarantees of Ukrainian neutrality. For its part, Russia must cease hostilities immediately, return to the negotiating table and compensate Ukraine for the damage it has inflicted upon the country.
The one thing that we citizens of the West must not do is allow this situation to escalate. Nor should we capitulate to opportunistic claims that this conflict proves the necessity of NATO or that NATO must be strengthened with higher military expenditures. NATO members collectively spend over US$1 trillion annually on their militaries – more than 15 times Russia’s annual military budget – and yet NATO was powerless to prevent, and is powerless to bring to an early end, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Spending yet more public money on NATO militaries would benefit no one but merchants of death. It would make the world less safe and divert precious resources away from the urgent necessity of resolving the climate crisis.
If the present tragedy proves anything, it’s that NATO governments must now do what they ought to have done decades ago: dissolve NATO.