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By invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin violated his neighbor’s sovereignty and threw the notion of international law out the window.
Afraid of one organization, NATO, Putin ignored the principles of another organization, the United Nations, as well as an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia and specifically meant to protect Ukraine from invasion.
Did Putin violate international law?
I put the simple question to Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, an online forum.
Here’s what he wrote in an email:
Russia has brazenly violated the core provision of the UN Charter by invading another member State.
Putin’s actions are a textbook example of the crime of aggression, which was considered the supreme international crime by the Nuremberg Tribunal following World War II.
What about the UN?
Formed after World War II in 1945 to prevent future wars, the UN Security Council includes five permanent members who are major world powers: the US, China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Other members are elected by the General Assembly on a rotating basis for two-year terms. The Security Council’s main objective is to “to maintain international peace and security.”
No country is supposed to invade another without the go-ahead by the Security Council. Clearly that did not happen here, although Russia did seek to justify its move on Ukraine with a number of allegations, all of which the US predicted beforehand and says are false.
Russia presides over the Security Council
It is a bizarre irony that at this moment when it goes to war on a neighbor, Russia is serving as president of the UN Security Council.
It’s a matter of some coincidence, since the presidency rotates monthly.
But Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power over all substantive measures means there will be no sanctions against Russia from the UN, although member countries have imposed their own punishments.
Indeed, Russia vetoed a draft resolution condemning its invasion of Ukraine Friday night. Eleven countries supported the resolution, and three – China, India and the United Arab Emirates – abstained.
A low point
I asked CNN’s Richard Roth, who has covered the UN for decades, how this invasion by Russia at a time when it is president of the Security Council will test the organization.
“One of the biggest embarrassments inside the UN in the thirty years I have kept my eyes on the place,” is how he described things in an email.
There is a move to change the rules.
Roth pointed out that France, another permanent member of the Security Council, has campaigned, without success, for fewer votes by permanent members.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, at a tense emergency meeting on Wednesday, asked Russia to relinquish its role as president of the Security Council.
“I really think it’s a body blow for the UN,” Roth said. “The Secretary-General said it’s his lowest moment on the job. They hold all these ‘preventative diplomacy’ sessions and retreats and consultations … and then Russian tanks run right over the precious UN charter.”
There have been previous examples of the US and NATO forces entering other countries, in Libya and Serbia.
But there is a key difference, Roth said. “In those cases there (were) war crimes to justify the actions, which infuriated Russia. Here Ukraine was a peaceful country.”
What can be done at the UN without the Security Council?
Goodman said member countries can go to the full UN General Assembly to condemn Russia.
He also argued that sanctions and isolation from individual countries can work.
“The cultural boycotts and diplomatic isolation of Russia may go a long way as they did with apartheid South Africa to bring needed change,” Goodman said.
What about NATO?
Four years after the formation of the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created.
NATO was specifically organized as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, multiple former Soviet republics joined NATO. It is because he feels that NATO is breathing down Russia’s neck that Putin has moved into Ukraine.
Article 5 protection. It is one thing for Putin to invade Ukraine, which is not a part of NATO. It would be something else entirely for him to move against a smaller NATO member, like the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
That would trigger Article 5 of the NATO charter, which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all of them. The US, France, Germany and the UK, along with the rest of the 30-member NATO alliance, would be required to respond.
Article 5 has only been invoked once, by the US after it was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. It was a NATO alliance that went into Afghanistan.
While President Joe Biden has strongly backed the NATO charter, former President Donald Trump routinely questioned it, before ultimately affirming it – as CNN’s Jeremy Herb wrote in 2017.
He wrote that Article 5 extends beyond the concept of invasion and has helped bolster defenses for Turkey along its border with Syria, and added forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
NATO has also engaged in so-called peacekeeping missions, like the one that is still ongoing in Kosovo, and training and support activities around the Mediterranean and in Africa.
Putin’s most obvious violation
Putin seemed to threaten any country that meddles with his invasion, obliquely referencing Russia’s nuclear weapons.
“Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history,” Putin said ominously this week, when he announced the attacks on Ukraine.
It wasn’t too long ago that Ukraine had nuclear weapons. In fact, as a former Soviet republic it had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1994 as part of nonproliferation efforts, it signed onto the Budapest Memorandum. Under the agreement, Ukraine accepted that it would denuclearize in exchange for compensation from the US and Russia, and for security assurances from the US, the UK and Russia that its sovereignty would be protected.
The agreement pushed Ukraine toward the Nonproliferation Treaty.
The rest of the world and the rules
Just because Putin chose to ignore international law and his own country’s agreements does not mean international law is dead.
The Yale University law professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro argue in a post for Just Security and Lawfare that the international response to Russia is proof the system is trying to work, since states have responded to Putin’s aggression with condemnation and action.
What happens next, and in the years to come, will be what determines the future of international law, they write: “Plans should be made now to hold the alliance together as long as necessary—for years, and perhaps decades.”
This could be one reason Biden has held some sanctions in reserve and been careful not to criticize Europe for not moving as swiftly against Russia as many American lawmakers would have liked.
Among the plans Hathaway and Shapiro suggest are ways to erase Russia’s leverage over Europe and protect smaller countries, like those in the Baltics, who fear Russia could move against them next.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify Baltic countries are members of NATO.