Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: The Role of International Law
On February 24, 2022, the world watched in horror as Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine, via land and sky in an unprovoked act of aggression.
The world has witnessed daily reports of civilian casualties, destroyed cities, and other details of Russia’s agression. How did the international legal order allow this to happen, and what could be done to stop it?
The Russia-Ukraine invasion has brought a renewed focus onto the concepts, theories, and institutional structures of international law and how they apply to cases of war in general and instances of unprovoked aggression specifically.
These issues are critical in the current conflict, as Russia, the aggressor nation, is also a nuclear power.
Supplying Arms to Ukraine Is Not an Act of War
Although the law of neutrality was the standard theory in international law throughout the centuries, creating the United Nations charter in 1945 led to a new prevailing philosophy regarding warfare.
States could provide weapons and other equipment to an unjustly attacked country so that the aggrieved nation could defend itself.
It is not considered an act of war for nations to come to the aid of an aggrieved country with military support, equipment, and financial sanctions to moderate the behavior of the aggressor nation.
You could argue that this behavior supports the international legal order by allowing Ukraine to protect itself from aggression.
This would also include using financial sanctions in support of an attacked nation. In the current Ukraine war, countries would only become embroiled in an armed conflict if they used armed force against Russia, something they would all loathe to do when facing nuclear power.
International Law and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
International law regulates the rights and responsibilities of each nation and how they deal with other nations. The main pillars of international law are the recognition of the equality of nations, the sanctity of borders, and the ability of each country to rule itself.
The provisions of International law that are most relevant to the current conflict include the following:
• Article 2 (4) of the United Nation’s Charter
• Article 51 of the United Nation’s Charter
• Article 5 of NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) founding treaty.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates Article 2 (4), which expressly prohibits the use of force against the territorial integrity of another state.
Article 51 provides that “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.”
Under this provision, other countries can support Ukraine’s right to self-defense through financial and military assistance and other equipment.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty says the invasion of any member nation of NATO will trigger a collective military response from other member nations.
Poland, Romania, and other baltic states bordering Russia are members of NATO, making the situation in Ukraine ever more delicate. Putin specifically raised NATO’s eastward expansion as one of the reasons for the invasion.
The Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in 1994 at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the memorandum, Ukraine voluntarily gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for security guarantees.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: The Motivation
Putin set out his intentions for Ukraine in a speech to his country on February 24, 2022, outlining the reasons for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several of these reasons are reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Between that speech and observations from those involved in U.S. foreign affairs, it is understood that Putin was motivated, or at least Putin said he was inspired to act, due to the following:
(1) Concern over NATO’s eastward expansion;
(2) Putin’s recognition of newly independent States dominated by Russian speakers living in Ukrainian territory (Donetsk and Luhansk regions);
(3) A call for military assistance by these new states and their governments;
(4) The sending in of Russian forces in response to those requests;
(5) Ukraine’s alleged genocide against ethnic Russians;
(6) The belief that Ukraine was not a real country but merely an extension of Russia;
(7) Unfounded concerns that Ukraine would develop nuclear weapons; and
(8) A wish to return to the days of the Russian empire.
Many of these actions are textbook moves from “Putin’s Playbook.” It is seen as highly possible that this conflict will end with Russia annexing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, just like what happened in Crimea. However, the world hopes that peace talks between Russia and Ukraine will make a difference.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine 2022: International Security Assurances
The international security assurances and agreements would appear not to be worth more than the paper they are written on if you are the Ukrainian president or a Ukrainian citizen forced to flee your homeland.
Once Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert, the already high stakes in this conflict grew exponentially. All treaties, assurances, and guarantees flew out the window when a nuclear nation went rogue and used naked aggression against its neighbor country’s military and civilians. The world read the headline with disbelief and shock at some point. There is only so much that can be done without risking the nuclear destruction of major population centers.
Limited assurances as Russia invades Ukraine
As was stated already, there is only so much that can be done to assure Ukraine’s security. Specifically, Russia is a member of the U.N. Security Council and has the veto power to stop the UN from intervening in the conflict or issuing resolutions targeting Russia. Article 5 of NATO will not be activated unless Russia moves into the Baltic States, Poland, or Romania. Additionally, Russia showed its lack of commitment to the Budapest Memorandum it signed when it invaded Ukraine last month.
International Institutions Respond to Russia’s Actions
Let’s turn to the various institutions that responded to Russia’s actions. Three main ones are of interest.
The International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002 under the Rome Statute, said it would proceed with investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Thirty-nine countries petitioned the ICC to start an investigation.
The Council of Europe
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949 by ten western European countries, suspended Russia’s participation in its Committee of Ministers and its Parliamentary Assembly.
The International Court of Justice
Ukraine filed a claim against Russia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging that Russia misinterpreted the Genocide Convention to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
The Genocide Convention defines genocide as certain, specified actions intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. There is no evidence that Ukraine committed any such acts.
Russia invading Ukraine has displayed the fragility of the world order in the modern nuclear era when a state’s sovereignty is violated. As the conflict grinds into its second month, the world waits with bated breath in hopes that peace in the region can be restored. Perhaps the fact that so many nations have shown support for Ukraine will deter future incursions by Russia and other nuclear powers in the future.