Russia’s Use of Social Media to Incite Urgency for a Preemptive Strike in Ukraine

The importance of Twitter in foreign affairs has increased dramatically in the last decade. Not only is it a key news source for people around the world, but it is an essential diplomatic forum. For example, if you want to know how Canada feels about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, simply check their Twitter page (specifically the Tweet from @CanadaUN at 10:29am on March 17, 2022).

Modern warfare is conducted online as much as on the physical battlefield, and not just through cyberattacks. Adversarial interactions on social media will matter in this new age, and it would be a mistake to ignore signs of hostile intent simply because they are put out in non-traditional means (i.e., through Twitter). The advent of social media and the internet necessarily expands the scope of war to include not only the key decision makers, but all global citizens with internet access.

Modern warfare techniques must be balanced against the traditional norms and customs limiting the use of force during wartime, which must be adhered to under the current international legal regime. Under the United Nations Charter, the UN maintains a broad prohibition on the use of force for all member states—including the US, Russia, and Ukraine—with few exceptions. One exception is the right for a nation to use force to defend itself, which is well established in customary international law and explicitly stated in the UN Charter: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense 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.”

But how far does the right to self-defense extend? Major powers today, including the U.S. and Russia, believe that the right to self-defense is anticipatory: not only can a State defend itself when attacked, but a State can defend itself in advance of an attack if it believes such an attack is imminent. This kind of self-defense is called “anticipatory self-defense.”

As evidence that Russia holds an expansive view, one merely has to look at Russia’s justifications for attacking Ukraine—one justification Russia posited for its attack on Ukraine is self-defense. Since Ukraine did not strike first, Russia engaged in anticipatory self-defense at best and at worst, an illegal invasion under international law.

At the end of the day, to stand up in court, anticipatory self-defense must still be justifiable. This is where Twitter comes into play in modern warfare.

This is not the first time Russia has propagated disinformation about US use and development of biological and chemical weapons, but it might be one of the first times where Twitter is being used to create the sense of urgency needed to justify a preemptive first strike in anticipatory self-defense. Gone is the day when government officials communicated through closed channels. Here is the age where every government agency, every government official, and every government itself has an official Twitter page where they can push out their thoughts of the day for the masses to take in.

The present events were sparked by a March 6 Tweet from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which accused the regime in Kiev of “eradicating traces of the military-biological weapons programme” in Ukraine. Subsequent Tweets accused the US of funding military-biological weapons programs in Ukraine, and Chinese officials have echoed Russia’s opinions. The March 8 Senate hearing only served to amplify rumors out of Moscow, as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, is quoted stating, “Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of. So, we are working with Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.” Despite repeated denunciations from the US regarding purported violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological Weapons Convention, the Russian government continues to cultivate anti-US sentiments at home and abroad through social media. 

Over the last two weeks, Russia has put out consistent messaging across its platforms accusing the United States of breaking international agreements regarding the creation and use of chemical weapons by funding their development for use in Ukraine. Notably, the Russian Embassy in the United States put out four Tweets on March 17, 2022, which alleged Russia had evidence that the US was funding the creation of bioweapons for use in Ukraine. These Tweets come after a Tweet earlier that day from the US State Department containing a video where Secretary of State Anthony Blinken states, “We believe that Moscow may be setting the stage to use a chemical weapon and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on Ukrainian people.”

To justify the use of force in anticipatory self-defense, the State using force must prove an attack on their sovereignty was imminent. Rooted in the 1837 Caroline incident, the elements of a modern-day test for imminence as articulated in the 16th Edition of the Law of Armed Conflict Deskbook, created by The US Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, are, “(1) evidence shows that an aggressor has committed itself to an armed attack and (2) delaying a response would hinder the defender’s ability to mount a defense.” Whether force can lawfully be used in anticipatory self-defense has been debated, but it is generally agreed upon that the use of force for self-defense is moderated by the modern jus ad bellum principles of necessity and proportionality. This means that in self-defense, force should only be used as the last resort and the magnitude of the use of force must be reasonable to counter the threat. Moreover, although the test for imminence is somewhat objective, it is also necessarily subjective. The Law of Armed Conflict Deskbook quotes the Secretary of State at the time of the Caroline incident as justifying anticipatory self-defense “if the circumstances leading to the use of force are ‘instantaneous, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.’”

As can be seen, the more Russia purports to find evidence of biological and chemical weapons-manufacturing in Ukraine, the more real and justifiable the threat against them becomes. The more real Russia believes the threat is, the easier it is for Russia to justify a preemptive strike against such facilities (or people or locations facilitating the development of weapons, both within Ukraine and abroad) in self-defense. Moreover, the lack of formal enforcement mechanisms in international law and the subjectivity of when a circumstance requires force instantaneously leaves the door open for an adversarial State, such as Russia, to abuse the right to self-defense.

Russia continues to allege that the United States is funding chemical and biological weapons development in Ukraine. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Russia is gearing up for a preemptive first strike to defend itself from such weapons by using social media channels to incite a sense of urgency both at home and abroad, which can be used to justify their actions. With the advent of Twitter and other social media channels, Russia has the capacity to create a sense of urgency that might not have existed during the Cold War, when news had to come through traditional channels at a much slower pace. Although the US government denounces the validity of Russian claims of bioweapons manufacturing, the United States would be remiss to simply dismiss Russian Tweets as disinformation and move on.

 

Kaleigh Dryden is a third year JD/MPIA student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

 

Suggested citation: Kaleigh Dryden, Russia’s Use of Social Media to Incite Urgency for a Preemptive Strike in Ukraine, JURIST – Student Commentary, March 25, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/kaleigh-dryden-russia-social-media-use-preemptive-strike/.


This article was prepared for publication by Katherine Gemmingen, Commentary Co-Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


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