Interview: Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs on Russia, Ukraine, and International Justice Features
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Interview: Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs on Russia, Ukraine, and International Justice

Economist and foreign policy expert Jeffrey Sachs, a best selling author and director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, has long argued that Russia’s hostility toward Ukraine was provoked by the U.S. vis-à-vis pushes for NATO expansion, military interventions, and other forms of meddling. In an interview with JURIST Assistant Editor Pitasanna Shanmugathas, Sachs delved into what he sees as the roles of international law, Washington’s tendency to enact a “Do what I say, not what I do” foreign policy, and the failures of the UN Security Council. 

JURIST’s Pitasanna Shanmugathas: Many Western media outlets portrayed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 as driven by his desire to reestablish the Soviet Union and assert Russian hegemony. However, Prof.Sachs, you disagree with this view. You have gone so far as to say that the United States ‘provoked’ Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To the readers of JURIST, explain what you believe are the real root causes behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Jeffrey Sachs: There are two root causes of the war. The first was the relentless US push from the 1990s onward to expand NATO to Ukraine, which Russian leaders vociferously opposed. America’s top diplomats have long known how reckless that idea was, and how likely it was to lead to conflict. Yet the US military-industrial complex persevered. The second was the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, in which the US actively participated, setting the stage for a Russophobic Ukrainian regime and a civil war. The war started in 2014 with Yanukovych’s overthrow, not in 2022 as the Western media have wrongly claimed.

JURIST: In a 2014 op-ed, you asserted that “international law itself is at a crossroads. The US, the EU, and NATO cite it when it is to their advantage and disregard it when they deem it a nuisance.” Can you elaborate upon instances where this has been the case?

Sachs: The US rejects international legal constraints on its power. It fails to ratify major UN treaties, ignores the opposition of the UN Security Council (e.g. to the war in Iraq in 2003), relentlessly imposes unilateral economic sanctions that are illegal under international law, rejects the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and much more. The U.S. foreign policy is all, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Everybody knows this except the American people, who are fed the US Government narrative by the mainstream media.

JURIST: Russia has actually used international law to justify its current invasion of Ukraine. Russia has argued that its use of force against Ukraine aligns with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which safeguards the self-defense rights of UN member states when faced with an “armed attack” and permits “collective self-defense.” In particular, Russia contends that they are justified in employing force against Ukraine to safeguard the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which Russia recognizes as independent entities. Can Russia’s argument be deemed legitimate within the realm of international law?

Sachs: I think that Russia should certainly have stepped up its international diplomacy rather than launched the invasion in 2022. Many countries, perhaps most in the developing world, support Russia’s position and oppose US unilateralism and militarism. I think that Russia could have been successful in global diplomacy in rallying the non-Western world against the US-led NATO enlargement and the Ukrainian and European failure to honor the Minsk II agreement (even though France and Germany were guarantors of the agreements).

JURIST: One of the commonly cited examples of Western hypocrisy regarding international law is their disregard for it during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, contrasted with the West’s strong regard for international law during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 or even Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Academics like Noam Chomsky, while condemning Russia’s invasion, have argued that the United States-led invasion of Iraq, with its ‘shock and awe’ tactics, was far more aggressive and resulted in far greater loss of life than anything Russia has done in Ukraine. Nonetheless, international legal institutions proved powerless to halt it. Your thoughts.

Sachs: The US foreign policy has long been suffused with militarism, unilateralism, and hypocrisy. The problem goes far beyond Iraq. Think about Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (both 1979 and 2001), Syria (the CIA-led attempt to overthrow Assad), Libya, and Ukraine (Yanukovych’s overthrow).

JURIST: With respect to the laws of war, or international humanitarian law, how do you believe Russia and Ukraine have conducted themselves?

Sachs: Wars are disasters and tragedies. All sides have no doubt committed war crimes, and the US and UK have no doubt abetted war crimes. To pin all of the charges against Russia is both absurd and dangerous. To end the war crimes, we need to end this war–through negotiations.

JURIST: In March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. It was the first time the international legal body ever issued an arrest warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the UNSC. Putin retaliated by placing the ICC judge on the Russian interior ministry’s wanted list. Similarly, when the ICC tried to probe US war crimes in Afghanistan, the Trump administration retaliated by imposing sanctions on the ICC officials conducting the probe, as well as visa restrictions against the families of those ICC officials. How can international legal institutions, like the ICC, be reformed so that it can actually be effective in holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable without the judges themselves fearing reprisals?

Sachs: The ICC will not work if it is the plaything of great powers. The arrest warrant for Putin is fatuous from what I can see. It reflects not just a double-standard but an utterly egregious double standard. If the many US government leaders who launched utterly illegal wars and coups were brought to the ICC we would begin to have a proper process.

JURIST: What role can international bodies–like the United Nations and/or others–play in bringing a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict? What would be the terms of a peace settlement? It has been speculated that Russia would not be willing to return the Ukrainian land it has annexed. Under international law, the annexation of land is illegal and therefore any peaceful settlement Russia may agree to would have to ignore this. It is unclear even if Russia were given guarantees that NATO will never incorporate Ukraine, whether or not Russia would still return the land it has annexed. Your thoughts?

Sachs: The UN Security Council should be forging a path to peace, one that is based on Ukraine’s neutrality; the end to the US plan to enlarge NATO to Ukraine; Russia’s withdrawal of troops from Ukraine; the disarming of militias; UN-backed security guarantees for Ukraine; UN peacekeepers and monitors; political processes regarding the contested territories; and a phase out of economic sanctions on Russia. The UNSC has not even tried to find a negotiated path to peace. The UNSC failure is very sad, in fact, alarming.

JURIST: If a peaceful settlement is ever reached in regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many in the international community will wish to hold the perpetrators of atrocities during the war accountable for violations of international law–this includes those within both Putin and Zelensky’s ranks. However, if not punitive justice, do you think international legal bodies could ever be receptive to a form of restorative justice so that at least there is some level of accountability to the atrocities committed during this war? 

Sachs: I personally think that peace and a restoration of daily life should take precedence. Many countries have by now grappled with the reality that there is no perfect justice after war, or apartheid, or civil insurrection, or other crimes. We should aim first and foremost to stop the killing and restore civil, political, and economic life. Many, probably most, of the findings of justice will have to be left to the historians. Of course, the most egregious war crimes should be pursued, but not the notion that one side or the other of this conflict is overwhelmingly responsible for the war crimes. Ukraine’s so-called peace plan, calling for a special tribunal to prosecute only Russian war crimes, is not a peace plan. It is an approach guaranteed to prolong the war, not to arrive at a negotiated peace.


Opinions expressed in JURIST interviews are those of the interviewee (and in some cases, as marked, of the interviewer) and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.