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The Russian view on Ukraine: An international law perspective

  • 07 March 2022
  Ukraine, a site of conflict over many centuries, is once again the scene of battle. First thoughts must be with the civilian population and Pope Francis’ call for prayer is probably the most practical course for most of us far from the action. Unfortunately, while it is clear that there have been casualties, both military and civilian, on both sides, the fog of war makes it very difficult to say more. Each side is active on social and traditional media and so a clear picture of what is going on is hard to come by. It should also be remembered that, since the current Ukrainian government took power in 2014, there has been virtually constant shelling in the East of the country with losses on both sides which have also been variously reported. We know, too, that there are also many people displaced on both sides and that Russia and Poland, in particular, have played the major share in hosting refugees. In short, this is a tragedy which is still unfolding at the time of writing. 

In understanding the Russian invasion, therefore, it is important to avoid falling into easy memes like ‘unprovoked attack’. There are clearly good grounds for doubting the legality of Russia’s action at international law and it is also true that very few commentators expected a full-scale invasion to be launched. Nevertheless, this is not a bolt from a clear sky but an intensification of a conflict which began at least eight years ago — and possibly thirty.

As I mentioned in a years-old article at the start of this crisis, the rhetoric used by Russia to claim recognition of Crimea (and now, of the Russian-speaking areas in Eastern Ukraine) is identical to that used by NATO in the case of Kosovo. Great powers argue for self-determination when it suits geo-political ends, and against it when it doesn’t. It’s therefore worth having a look at the geopolitics that got us here.

In the thirty years since the Cold War, NATO has expanded over Russian objections, to the extent that it now abuts Russian territory. At the same time, the US has unilaterally withdrawn from most of the Cold-War arms control treaties. Open Skies, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, all have been unilaterally renounced. Russia had repeatedly objected to NATO expansion, most recently in diplomatic demarches sent last December but had received only the response that ‘if the