On the evening of February 23, the members of the UN Security Council gathered in a last-ditch effort to fulfill their obligations as “peace-loving nations.” Around 11:30 p.m. EST, Ukraine’s UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, was finally given the floor. Reshuffling his papers, he bewailed that his prepared remarks were now “useless.” “It’s too late...to speak of de-escalation” Kyslytsya lamented, “too late.” While the members sat in their diplomatic round-robin attempting to prevent a ground war in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced an invasion of Ukraine.
The meeting did not last much longer, with the UN Security Council president quickly moving through the other representatives’ remarks—the president being none other than Russia’s own “peace-loving” UN ambassador.
Russia’s invasion, taken without provocation, constitutes an unequivocal violation of jus ad bellum—or the law of war; however, Russia’s hostilities do not simply breach international law. One of Putin’s primary motivations has in fact been to poison the very framework of the modern international legal order by maliciously manipulating the application and interpretation of core concepts—including the right to self-defense, the right to self-determination, and the prohibition of genocide—codified precisely to prevent such violence.
The totality and devastation of World War II prompted leaders to establish a framework upon which a more peaceful postwar world could be constructed—one where war was the absolute last resort in settling conflicts between and among states, where the preservation of international law was paramount, and where democratic principles formed the basis of states’ foreign policies. To quote the elegant words of the Red Army’s own colonel of justice, Eugene Korovin, “the process of overcoming [antidemocratic trends], the struggle for their abolition and the affirmation of the principles of democracy in international relations constitute[d] an immediate objective [that united] the progressive elements of contemporary [hu]mankind.”
This vision was manifested in the United Nations and the international system it established. Tenets such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, nonintervention, and self-determination were enshrined in the UN Charter, the authoritative and defining covenant of this new world. The principle of last resort became a central element of jus ad bellum, codified in Chapter VII of the charter, which grants the UN Security Council sole authority to authorize military action, qualified by the right of every member state to individual and collective self-defense under Article 51. The Geneva Conventions (1949) were updated and expanded to limit the horrors of war, and the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Genocide Convention (1948) evidenced states’ recognition of and commitment to preventing a repeat of World War II’s atrocities.
Putin’s cynical twisting of the core principles underlying the postwar international system and codified in these instruments has been on display from the outset of the current war. In justifying the largest military attack in Europe since World War II, the Russian president invoked Article 51, citing the need to protect the populations of two breakaway Ukrainian regions, the so-called Peoples Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, where Russia has been arming separatists since 2014. To defend Russia’s blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Putin explicitly referenced the right to self-determination under Article 1 of the UN Charter, announcing Russia’s official recognition of the regions, despite neither’s ability to satisfy the high international legal burden of achieving statehood through secession. Putin then brazenly used the regions’ invented statuses to buttress his invocation of collective defense under Article 51, cloaking his bellicosity in a façade of legitimacy and ignoring Article 1’s emphasis on promoting “friendly relations among nations.”
Putin’s references to a genocide being perpetrated by Kyiv are even more outlandish. Indeed, it is Moscow’s own aggression, accusations, and actions vis-à-vis the Ukrainian nation and its people that echo the Soviet Union's earlier campaign of genocide in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. Under Article II parts (a) and (b) of the Genocide Convention, killing or "causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of” an ethnic group or nation in an attempt to destroy that entity constitutes genocide. While it is perhaps premature to classify Russia’s actions as an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian nation, there is already ample evidence of Russian military attacks on Ukrainian civilians in contravention of international humanitarian law, as well as of potential war crimes including rape, torture, and unlawful confinement committed during the extended conflict in the Donbas. Such violence could be construed as manifesting Putin’s conviction that there is no separate (ethnic) Ukrainian nation.
Putin’s insidious invocations of international law, which have been debunked and refuted by international lawyers of all persuasions, constitute a direct assault on the modern liberal world order from within, through the baseless manipulation of codified international legal precepts. As Russia’s war of choice rages on, so does its attack on the UN Charter system. Even as its forces employ indiscriminate weapons and strike civilian targets in Ukraine, in defiance of the Geneva Convention, its UN ambassador embraces the procedures of the UN Security Council to convene a special meeting to speciously accuse the United States of developing biological weapons in Ukraine, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.
In effect, Russia has launched a two-front war—with its military on the ground in Ukraine and through its words and actions in Moscow and New York—against the international system. Moscow’s pernicious perversion of codified postwar legal principles, however, presents the West with a significant opportunity. Despite Russia’s best efforts, proponents of the rules-based international system seem unwilling to throw in the towel just yet. Instead, as Monica Hakimi argues, they are “rallying around the UN Charter,” turning to the procedures, tenets, and resources of the UN system to retaliate against Russian lawlessness.
The United States has responded to Russia’s physical assault with sustained strikes on the Russian economy, as well as more recently promising and delivering lethal assistance. It is now time for the United States to engage on the second front, by reaffirming the international normative and legal architectures that are also under attack.
Ideally, this would include reconsidering the longstanding U.S. aversion to joining core institutions of the UN Charter system committed to the peaceful resolution of international disputes. Ukraine, a nation under fire, has demonstrated its commitment to such institutions, having sought peaceful redress against Russian aggression at the International Court of Justice. Perhaps it’s finally time, then, for the United States to get on board as well. Likewise, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced new investigations into potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Moscow has decried the investigations by pulling directly from the U.S. playbook, asserting that the court lacks jurisdiction over it as a nonparty to the Rome Statute. Why allow Russia to cite the United States as a precedent when the latter could instead serve as an exemplar of the system it is fighting to save with sanctions and export controls?
A credible U.S. defense of the international legal order would also involve coming fully in compliance with the terms of treaties to which the United States is a party, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, and revisiting the logic of refusing to ratify international agreements aimed at limiting the horrors of conflict currently playing out in Europe (e.g., the Convention on Cluster Munitions).
The world’s failure to prevent Russia’s invasion has prompted some observers to dismiss the United Nations and international law as “irrelevant.” The valiant demonstrations of global solidarity with Ukraine, in accordance with international legal principles, however, suggest otherwise. Washington has led the way thus far. The long-term credibility of U.S. global leadership, however, will require a more unalloyed commitment to the very rules the United States is now seeking to defend.