The parade of horribles is almost inevitable.
Russia has invaded Ukraine, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s identification of the former Soviet Union as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” has turned out to be less a manifestation of nostalgia for the Cold War Era than a somewhat surprisingly accurate prediction. Russian military forces are allegedly digging trenches on the border with mainland Ukraine—apparently Russia is anxious to revive 20th-century military tactics to reclaim Crimea from the new Western-oriented government of Ukraine.
So is it time to learn a lesson from World War II and eschew any plan of appeasement and ready the international community for World War III? What should we do with what Secretary of State John Kerry terms as Russia’s “brazen act of aggression?”
First and foremost, it is essential to define Russia’s actions as a breach of international law. In fact, Russia’s actions arguably are exactly the type of behavior that the United Nations was created to prevent. That is, in the aftermath of World War II, and even during the waning of the war itself, the Allied Powers looked for ways to improve on the League of Nations with the creation of a supranational organization that would outlaw war and create a forum for the peaceful resolution of major conflicts.
At the center of the U.N. Charter, in Article 2, stands the “principle of the sovereign equality” of all Member States, and the mandatory obligation 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.” Further, Article 51 provides that each Member State has an unabridged “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against” a Member State. Thus, the U.N. Charter codified the integrity of a state’s sovereignty as sacrosanct.
Russia has attempted to justify its invasion of Crimea with a self-defense argument, but there are several factors that indicate that this attempt is more a subversion of the international law of the use of force than an example of compliance with it.
First, Russia argues that its invasion of Ukraine is justified to protect Russian citizens. Although the United States is among the greatest proponents of this “defense of nationals” iteration of self-defense, and although the recent revolution in Ukraine could very well pose an imminent threat to Russian citizens, the fact that 143,000 Ukrainians have become Russian citizens in the past two weeks evidences significant bad faith underlying Russia’s justification.
A more likely explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to invade Crimea is a decidedly Cold War-like fear: Western-oriented Ukrainians have won the revolution and placed a pro-European Union government in power. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is on Russia’s doorstep again, and this clearly makes Putin uncomfortable. But just because Russia is experiencing an existentialist crisis does not mean that it is justified in invading Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine can legally employ force to remove Russian forces from its territory.
Although Russia may not have fired a single gunshot (as of the writing of this column), it would be absurd to argue that Russian military presence did not constitute an imminent threat of the use of force. Further, President Putin has even asked the Duma for permission to use force on Ukrainian territory. As such, Ukraine is legally entitled to use necessary and proportional force to expel Russian forces from its borders. Moreover, it can probably ask for help from NATO or other allies in order to protect its territorial sovereignty.
So what is the wiser course of attack? Should the international community stick to strong words of condemnation and wag their fingers at President Putin and his blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty? Or should international leaders be preparing themselves for an aggressive anti-appeasement policy, a strong show of force to demonstrate to Russia that its actions are absolutely not tolerated?
Provided that Ukraine would ask for international help in order to reestablish its territorial integrity, it is essential that the international community be prepared to come to Ukraine’s aid. This is not a case of humanitarian intervention, where it is unclear whether international law would permit the use of force to protect individual lives. This is precisely the sort of situation envisioned by the founders of the United Nations. A formidable power is asserting its dominance over a politically weaker state—and former territorial possession.
The international community must come together to cancel out Russia’s unwarranted aggression and prevent the replacement of a German Third Reich with a de facto re-establishment of the Soviet Union.
If we stick to finger-wagging and looks of disapproval now, we risk rendering the words of the U.N. Charter meaningless and succumbing to the pessimistic views of individuals such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who believes “there is no United Nations,” only power politics.
Joline Doedens is a second-year law student. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Joline a message @jydoedens.