James P. Rudolph, Former U.S. Department of State Franklin Fellow and Foreign Affairs Officer, discusses why the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the integrity of the international order and the rule of law that the West has spent decades trying to cultivate since World War II…
Russian forces, in an act of breathtaking barbarity, have invaded Ukraine, an independent, sovereign nation that has in recent years looked to the West for its inspiration and guidance. And with this military move, several deeply embedded international laws have been violated by Russia in what can only be described as a “criminal war of premeditated and unjustified aggression.” Countless norms and laws have been violated, but the most straightforward and salient aspects relate specifically to Russia’s revanchist claims to Ukrainian territory.
First and foremost, the prohibition of aggression is one of the most cherished and sacrosanct of international laws. The modern incarnation of this law has its roots in World War II and what was then called a crime against peace. Germany, rampaging through much of Europe, caused untold misery to millions through its aggressive, blitzkrieg invasions and annexations. The international community, coming together to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” drafted the United Nations (UN) Charter, the purpose of which is to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.”
In addition, Article 2(4), by which Russia is bound, states that “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.” In a subsequent iteration, Article 3 of Resolution 3314 was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974, and it defined aggression as “the invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from such invasion or attack, or any annexation by the use of force of the territory of another State or part thereof.” Thus, if Russian armed forces attack or invade Ukrainian territory, occupy it as a result of the initial invasion or annex more Ukrainian territory, they will have violated the law against aggression. This triggers the involvement of the UN Security Council, which “shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken.” President Putin has for weeks been threatening the peace and has now unambiguously breached it through the deployment of troops into Ukraine and his full-scale attack.
It is true, of course, that Russia wields veto power at the Security Council, so any robust enforcement there is unlikely. Yet even if recourse to the UN is unavailing, nations have many ways of responding to a breach of international law. President Biden, along with many other leaders, has already imposed financial sanctions on Russians and Russian banks, and this is part of an escalated plan. These sanctions are said to be more punishing than the previous tranche of sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, Russia has since become increasingly dependent on the money it makes by exporting gas to Germany and other European nations. Hence, Germany’s chancellor, recognizing a potent pressure point, has indicated that the certification for Nord Stream 2, the pipeline transporting natural gas from Russia to Germany, is being withheld.
And Ukraine, in response to the invasion, can now assert its inherent right to self-defense (which also is codified in Article 51 of the UN Charter). This means it can, to the extent possible, inflict losses on invading Russian troops. These losses never play well at home, so it’s yet another way of weakening Putin’s resolve, especially if this mission requires an extended occupation and fight against an insurgency. There’s also a right of nations to come to the defense of other nations, so long as a request is made. Many European countries, especially Germany, would be wise to consider sending more weaponry to Ukraine as it defends itself. After all, if Europe genuinely champions self-determination and human rights above warmongering, it must step up and do all it can to demonstrate its commitment beyond token measures.
Still, many Americans ask why Ukraine should concern us at all. It’s a fair question, to be sure. We have a plethora of problems here at home. But beyond stock market losses, Ukraine matters, for four reasons.
First, the international system created after World War II, which the United States did so much to foster, is at stake. After all, if an independent, sovereign, democratic nation based on the rule of law (the kind the Western world has spent decades trying to cultivate) can be swallowed up without the invader facing draconian consequences, the jig is up. This system, albeit not perfect, has produced order, predictability and wealth. Second, Munich in 1938 taught the world that appeasement never works and in fact leads to more aggression. We cannot allow President Putin to believe he has free rein in Ukraine, as this will only lead to more uses of force and more territorial acquisitions. If there is any doubt, the recent inclusion of Belarus in the invasion of Ukraine should disabuse us of any illusions. As Winston Churchill said after the capitulation at Munich, this is “the first foretaste of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us year by year.”
Third, China, which stifles the cultural identity and independence of Uighurs in Xinjiang and threatens the existence of Taiwan as an independent entity, is watching. If Beijing senses that aggression goes unanswered, especially by the United States, it will set a terrible precedent and open the door to more aggression not only in the Asia Pacific region but around the world as well. Beijing’s longstanding policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations has lost all credibility as President Xi Jingping stands idly by as his comrade prosecutes an entirely unprovoked war against a fellow sovereign. And finally, war itself is an assault on the human rights of those in its destructive path. Despite best efforts through technology and distinguishing between illegitimate civilian targets and legitimate military ones, innocents end up psychologically maimed, physically injured or dead. As Herodotus once said, “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.”
We would do well to remember these words as our friend and ally faces imminent destruction not only to its infrastructure and towns, but also to its way of life. The integrity of the international system, which the United States did so much to build after WWII, matters. The rule of law matters. And the Ukrainian way of life, which in so many ways is the Western or American way of life, matters. This – this is why Ukraine should concern us all.
James P. Rudolph is a Former U.S. Department of State Franklin Fellow and Foreign Affairs Officer.
Suggested citation: James P. Rudolph, Why Putin’s Crime Spree in Ukraine Concerns Us All, JURIST – Professional Commentary, March 3, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/james-rudolph-russia-putin-ukraine-invasion/.
This article was prepared for publication by Raghu Gagneja, a JURIST Assistant Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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