Amid growing fears of war in Ukraine, Moscow slams US grasp of international law

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized his Western counterparts Friday for what he described as their selective interpretation of international treaties, and poured scorn on a former US Ambassador over his understanding of the 2015 Minsk Agreements.

Since December, upwards of 100,000 Russian troops have massed along the Ukrainian border. Diplomatic negotiations between Moscow, Kyiv and their Western counterparts have proven largely ineffective, sparking widespread concerns of a military invasion.

The possibility of Ukraine eventually joining NATO is central to the dispute. While NATO maintains an open-door policy, Russia contends that Ukrainian accession to the organization would jeopardize its regional security. Asked during a press conference in December if he could guarantee unconditionally that Russia would not invade Ukraine or any other sovereign country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “Our actions [will depend] on unconditional guarantees for Russia’s security today and in the historical perspective. .We have made it clear that any further movement of NATO to the East is unacceptable.”

Asked in a domestic-media press briefing Friday if war was imminent, Lavrov said that if it were up to Moscow, the answer would be no. He did not, however, rule out the possibility of conflict in the event that Russian interests are threatened by incongruous interpretations of international agreements. “If it depends on the Russian Federation, there will be no war. We don’t want wars, but we won’t allow anyone to trample on our interests or ignore them, either,” Lavrov said.

He decried the United States’ 2019 withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and then accused Russia’s Western adversaries of willfully misinterpreting security agreements signed in 2010 and in 1999 by member states of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). Both OSCE documents state in relevant part: “The security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all others.” The 2010 document adds to that postulation: “Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve.”

Lavrov complained on Friday: “The West ‘ripped out’ just one slogan from this package: each country has the right to choose its allies and military alliances. But in that package, this right comes with a condition and an obligation on each country, to which the Westerners subscribed: not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of others. With its mantra that the NATO open door policy is sacred and no one can say ‘no’ to Ukraine joining the Alliance and that it’s up to Ukraine to decide, the West is, deliberately and openly, refusing even to acknowledge the second part of the commitments.”

On the question of war, Lavrov concluded that the ball is in the Western adversaries’ court. “I am sending official requests to all my colleagues asking them directly to clarify how they are going to fulfill, in the current historical circumstances, the obligations that their countries have signed onto at the highest level. … I hope they will give an honest answer about what they have in mind when they implement these agreements in an exclusively unilateral manner that benefits them. … Let’s see how they respond.”

Lavrov then slammed former US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul over his understanding of the Minsk Agreements, a package of still unimplemented measures signed in 2014 and 2015 with the aim of de-escalating the then-burgeoning conflict between Kyiv and Russia-loyal Eastern Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk, which have proclaimed their independence from Ukraine, a move that has received virtually no international recognition. McFaul served as US Ambassador to Russia in 2012-2014 under US President Barack Obama, his tenure having begun with an ill-fated attempt at a bilateral reset, and ended in the weeks leading up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

Claiming to be asking a spate questions on behalf of McFaul, a reporter asked Lavrov on Friday why Russia hadn’t sought United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorization “if” it felt the use of force was needed in Ukraine; whether Russia still believes in the UNSC; and why Moscow has not recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

In the sort of terse response, Lavrov referred to the UNSC-related questions as “absolutely ignorant,” asserting the word “if” has no place in diplomatic negotiations, and argued that the question of independence reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the Minsk accords. “Regarding recognition, I think Mr. McFaul, who had made a tremendous contribution to destroying anything constructive in Russian-American relations, just did not have time to read the Minsk agreements approved in February 2015,” Lavov said.

Notably, analysts have observed that a central obstacle to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements is fact that they rest on irreconcilable understandings of the limitations (in Moscow’s view) or lack thereof (in Kyiv’s view) of Ukrainian sovereignty.

With diplomatic negotiations at a deadlock, US authorities have sounded the alarm over the possible imminence of a Russian invasion.

Kyiv, meanwhile, has urged calm, and implored world leaders to soften their rhetoric. “There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in press comments Friday, in comments carried by the BBC.

Human Rights advocates have warned that failure to swiftly resolve the crisis could prove “devastating.” Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard warned on Friday: “The threat of the use of military force by Russia is already affecting the human rights of millions of people in Ukraine and beyond. … The consequences of actual military force are likely to be devastating. Ukraine’s recent history is punctuated by conflicts involving Russian troops in [Donetsk and Luhansk] and the illegal annexation of Crimea. These episodes have torn communities and lives apart, as military forces have trampled on the rights of civilians with impunity; it’s time to break that vicious cycle.”